Book review: The Edinburgh History of Reading. 4 vols. Eds. Mary Hammond and Jonathan Rose. Edinburgh UP, 2020.

Guest post by our network member Ute Schneider, JGU Mainz

The Edinburgh History of Reading. Vols. 1-4: Early Readers, ed. by Mary Hammond. Modern Readers, ed. by Mary Hammond. Common Readers, ed. by Jonathan Rose. Subversive Readers, ed. by Jonathan Rose. Edinburgh University Press 2020. ISBN 978-1-47446191-7, £ 350. Link to publication on Edinburgh UP website.

The cover images of the four-volume set. Copyright Edinburgh UP.

Edinburgh University Press has recently published four volumes on the history of reading, two each by Mary Hammond and Jonathan Rose. The focus of the articles is strictly on readers and reading practices. The four volumes are thematically focused. However, two volumes are ordered chronologically and cover the period from the early 19th century to literary modernity (Early Readers and Modern Readers). Yet they also reach back to before this period and beyond it, because, as Mary Hammond writes in the preface, modernity is to be understood differently in Africa, for example, than in Europe, The other two volumes focus on the “average reader” as well as on the subversive reader (Common Readers and Subversive Readers). The four volumes are designed as anthologies of 14 to 16 contributions on exemplary topics and case studies. The topics cover both international and intercultural perspectives; although the geographical focus is on Great Britain. However, selected phenomena in Australia, Africa, China, Russia, India, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Iran, Indonesia, Singapore, Spain, Peru, USA, and France are also discussed. It is impossible to acknowledge all contributions individually, so this review focusses on just a few impressions from each volume to illustrate the breadth of range of the topics covered. Reading times, places of reading, reading motivations and the instrumentalisation of books for purposes other than reading are as much the subject of the volumes as the representation of readers in art.

Chronologically, the volume Early Readers in Ancient China begins with the Confucian scholars and ends with an article by W. R. Owens on “Reading Aloud, Past and Present.” Owens cites three fundamental aspects: “The first is that histories of reading need to take greater account of reading aloud if we are to understand properly the cultural significance and experience of reading in the past. The second is that reading aloud was not ‘replaced’ by silent reading, but continued alongside it for much longer than is sometimes recognised …. The third is that reading aloud is not just a thing in the past, but has a distinctive and valuable role to play in present-day society” (p. 297). Owens uses examples from literary history and autobiographies, starting with the Bible, via the memoirs of Florence Nightingale to the Pickwick Papers and contemporary reading circles, to illustrate the traditions of reading aloud. Owens also draws on the sources of the Reading Experience Database (RED) project, which he led from 2005 to 2015.

Reading times are the focal point of the volume Modern Readers. Starting with a look at night-time reading, Christopher Ferguson (“The Rise of Night Reading in Nineteenth-Century Britain”) explores its origins (“physical conditions”), drawing on a wealth of autobiographical, epistolary, contemporary governmental, and social historical sources. He dates the first nocturnal reading experiences to the early 19th century. Candles were expensive but were also used by less well-off people for reading at night, and between 1833 and 1842 alone, seven fires in London were caused by nightly candlelight reading. Fatalities were not infrequent. Even the introduction of gaslight in London in the 1820s did not lead to the abandonment of candlelight at night by the reading public, who willingly accepted the high costs and dangers. Ferguson can thus reject the simple correlation between the spread of nocturnal reading and the advancing technologies of artificial lighting. Since candles did not become cheaper either, and inexpensive reading materials were printed more often (though in lower typographic quality and thus unsuitable for reading by candlelight), other aspects must be responsible for this. Ferguson suspects that the reason lies in the processes of cultural change. Evening reading (aloud) in a domestic circle has been a social practice, with positive connotations, since the early modern era, and was widespread in the 19th century, especially for personal educational purposes (“personal improvement”). The night was mainly used for intensive educational reading because of the silence after a busy day which did not allow for any reading. Sacrificing sleep in favour of additional educational reading was an opportunity for further education, especially for the young male worker.

“Night reading expanded during the nineteenth century, therefore, because ordinary men and women wanted to read, and found the night-time either a congenial setting in which to do so, or because the night was the only time that remained available to them. Night reading was controversial in the nineteenth century for the same reasons. Reading at night allowed individuals to select their own reading matter and read it clandestinely, in solitude” (p. 24/25).

In addition to reading time, space and place of reading is another focal point – and likewise the subject of two contributions. In Modern Readers, the editor herself writes about “Reading While Travelling in the Long Nineteenth Century” and evaluates the Reading Experience Database (RED), a platform that provides over 30,000 documents on the history of reading between 1450 and 1945 from diaries, letters, marginalia, memoirs, court cases, biographies, autobiographies (both published and unpublished) as well as images. In particular, she asks about the social evaluation of female reading in the public sphere of the railway, because “a woman reading anywhere was a subject of particular scrutiny during the Victorian and Edwardian period, in both images and print” (p. 106). Hammond concludes: “The truth is there is no evidence that anxiety about their reading had ever really affected women’s reading, or their travelling habits, which were already well established by the time steam trains and steam-driven printing presses and paper mills brought both literature and travel within the reach of almost everyone. […] Travelling seems to have afforded women a space in which to defy the constraints of the domestic sphere from before the earliest days of steam, and they seem to have signalled it by their reading” (p. 119/120).

Hammond’s contribution is closely related to that of Amelia Yeates (“Space and Place in Nineteenth Century Images of Women Readers”), which can be found in Common Readers. She, too, explores the question of which space female readers are assigned to in paintings. Especially their roles as educator of children and moral authority of the household are represented by typical reading scenes (mother with children). Yeates analyses the design of the domestic reading rooms: their interior, but also outside spaces such as the beach. Using Alexander Rossi’s painting “Forbidden Books” (1897), in which six young women secretly gained access to the domestic library, she shows how sexually charged reading rooms are. However, Yeates, like Hammond, points out that scenes with travelling women in painting refer to a special function of reading: “Books were recommended as a safeguard for young travelling females, as they could ‘shut out the attack of that intolerably sociable stranger'” (p. 109). This also applies to reading on the beach: reading could be a “form of portable privacy” (p. 111). During the Victorian era, representations of both domestic and non-domestic spaces were sexually charged, and the reading processes inherent in them served to protect the reader or vice versa.

The bookshelf is also part of a book’s location. Nicole Gonzalez and Nick Weir-Williams take “A Historical and Psychological Look at the Presentation of Book Collections,” Nicole Gonzalez and Nick Weir-Williams analyse the functions of the bookshelf in the volume Common Readers. These go beyond the mere storage function because placing books in an open shelf, accessible to people beyond their owners, allows conclusions to be drawn about the character of the book owner. The study, based on psychological and sociological theories, was guided by two main theses:

“1. books have […] been assigned a value of esteem, from the highest highbrow to the lowest lowbrow, based on qualities such as their genre, style and intended audience, and the evaluation of these books then transfer to their owners as well, as badges of honour and esteem, or as stigmas of low intellect and whimsy. 2. book collections, like other material possessions, are extensions of the self – symbols of who we feel we are, who we would like to be and how we would like others to see us” (p. 214).

This is also the reason – according to the authors – why the greatest growth rate in e-books can be observed in the lowbrow genre. Romance novels have been a pioneer of the “e-book revolution”. The reader loads what does not suit his or her self-perception onto the e-reader, and displays other, more suitable books on the shelf. The authors conclude: “Our bookshelves are – whatever motivation underlies their design – connections with the people whom we permit to see them” (p. 215).

In the Subversive Readers‘ spectrum of topics, three contributions are devoted to reading and writing in prison. Patricia Canning (“‘I loved the stories – they weren’t boring’: Narrative Gaps, the ‘Disnarrated’ and the Significance of Style in Prison Reading Groups”) worked with prisoners in Northern Ireland from 2010 until 2014, and Alireza Fakhrkonandeh reports on “Reading History, History Reading in Modern Iranian Literature: Prison Writing as National Allegory or a World Literary Genre?” Finally, Mary Carroll and Jane Garner contributed “Reading in Australian Prisons: An Exploration of Motivation.” Common to all the examples from different political systems as well as social and geographical locations is that reading and writing in prison has positive effects on various levels: cognitive reflection of the situation, psychological relief and social competence gain and, last but not least, further education.

The collective reading of erotic literature is also part of subversive reading. Brian M. Watson considers the readers of erotic and pornographic texts in England in the 18th and 19th century in “Hellfire and Cannibals: Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Erotic Reading Groups and Their Manuscripts.” As Jonathan Rose points out in his foreword, research to date has focused primarily on erotic texts, their authors, publishers and booksellers. With a spotlight on the readers, his contribution now closes a gap in modern research. Using the Hellfire Club in the 18th century and the Cannibal Club in the 19th century as examples, Watson explains the role and activities of private book clubs in the development of erotic literature. For example, Cannibal Club gave the first translations of the Kama Sutra (1885) and The Perfumed Garden: A Manual of Arabian Erotology (1886).

The volumes are convincing in their special, as yet little illuminated access to specific phenomena in the history of reading and the reading public. The history of reading becomes impressively vivid through the many source-saturated contributions, which also avoid the mistake of making sweeping statements about the social and geographical composition of the reading public of the early modern and modern age by means of hardly tenable statistics. A bibliography covering all topics concludes each volume. As outlined by the editors, the goal of the project was to bring “together the latest scholarship from all over the world on topics ranging from reading practices in ancient China to the workings of the twenty-first-century reading brain … .” This has undoubtedly been successful.

Link to publication on Edinburgh UP website.

Overview of the table of contents

Early Readers

1 The Move Towards Literacy Among Confucian Scholars in Ancient China (Liqing Tao and David Reinking)

2 Reading for Rule: Emperor Taizong of Tang and Qunshu zhiyao  (Fan Wang)

3 Medieval Women Writers and What They Read,c. 1100 – c. 1500 (Martha W. Driver)

4 Mi ritrovai per un poema sacro. The Ideological Reading Subject in Dante’s Inferno (Glenn A. Steinberg)

5 The Unreadable Book of Margery Kempe (Ashley R. Ott)

6 Between Reading and Doing: The Case of Medieval Manuscript Books of Practical Medicine (Faith Wallis)

7 Visual Form and Reading Communities: The Example of Early Modern Broadside Elegies (Katherine Acheson)

8 Ottomans Reading Persian Classics: Readers and Reading in the Ottoman Empire, 1500–1700 (Murat Umut Inan)

9 Books, Readers and Reading Experiences in the Viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Pedro M. Guibovich Perez)

10 ‘Read it o’re and o’re’: Eikon Basilike and Sacramental Reading in the Seventeenth Century (Kyle Sebastian Vitale)

11 Plurilingual Poetry and the Hinterland of Intertextuality: Europeanising Reading Culture in the Early Modern Iberian World (Maya Feile Tomes)

12 Printed Private Library Catalogues as a Source for the History of Reading in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Europe (Helwi Blom, Rindert Jagersma and Juliette Reboul)

13 Reading, Visual Literacy and the Illustrated Literary Text in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Sandro Jung)

14 Reading Aloud, Past and Present (W. R. Owens)

Modern Readers

1 The Rise of Night Reading in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Christopher Ferguson)

2 The Book as Prop in the Missionary Imagination: Picturing Africans as Readers (Natalie Fossey and Lize Kriel)

3 Augustus De Morgan (1806–71), His Reading and His Library (Karen Attar)

4 William Gladstone Reads His Contemporaries (Michael Wheeler)

5 Reading While Travelling in the Long Nineteenth Century (Mary Hammond)

6 The Empire Reads Back: Travel, Exploration and the British World in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (John McAleer)

7 ‘Knowledge of books’ and ‘Appreciation of literature’: Reading Choices of Aspiring American Librarians in the Progressive Era (Christine Pawley)

8 Papers, Posters and Pamphlets: UK Readers in the Second World War (Simon Eliot)

9 Peace of Mind in the Age of Anxiety: Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and America’s Post-war Therapeutic Faith (Cheryl Oestreicher)

10 Reading and Classical Music in Mid-Twentieth-Century America (Joan Shelley Rubin)

11 Remaking the World Through Reading: Books, Readers and the Global Project of Modernity, 1945–70 (Amanda Laugesen)

12 Amazing Stories, 1950–3: The Readers Behind the Covers (Angelle Whavers)

13 The Other Digital Divide: Gendering Science Fiction Fan Reading in Print and Online, 1930 to the Present (Cait Coker)

14 ‘A bolt is shot back somewhere in the breast’(Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life’): A Methodology for Literary Reading in the Twenty-First Century (Philip Davis and Josie Billington)

Common Readers

1 British Commonplace Readers, 1706–1879 (Jillian M. Hess)

2 Reading in God’s Treasure-House: The Societies for Purchasing Books in Leadhills and Wanlockhead, 1741–1820 (Margaret J. Joachim)

3 The School Library and Childhood Reading in Lowland Scotland, 1750–1850 (Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell)

4 ‘Although ambitious we did not aspire to such dizzy heights’: Manuscript Magazines and Communal Reading Practices of London Literary Societies in the Long Nineteenth Century (Lauren Weiss)

5 Space and Place in Nineteenth-Century Images of Women Readers (Amelia Yeates

6 Asian Classic Literature and the English General Reader, 1845–1915 (Alexander Bubb)

7 Readers and Reading During Russia’s Literacy Transition, 1850–1950: How Readers Shaped a Great Literature (Jeffrey Brooks)

8 F. F. Pavlenkov’s Literacy Project: Popular Serials and Reading Rooms for the Russian Masses (Carol Ueland and Ludmilla A. Trigos)

9 Formal and Informal Networks of Book Provision for Rural Children in Australia and New Zealand, 1900–60 (Bronwyn Lowe)

10 Putting Your Best Books Forward: A Historical and Psychological Look at the Presentation of Book Collections (Nicole Gonzalez and Nick Weir-Williams)

11 In Search of the Chinese Common Reader: Vernacular Knowledge in an Age of New Media (Joan Judge)

12 From ‘Bookworms’ to ‘Scholar-Farmers’: Tao Xingzhi and Changing Understandings of Literacy in the Chinese Rural Reconstruction Movement, 1923–34 (Zach Smith)

13 The Voice of the Reader: The Landscape of Online Book Discussion in the Netherlands, 1997–2016 (Peter Boot)

14 Novel Ideas: The Promotion of North American Book Club Books and the Creation of Their Readers (Samantha Rideout and DeNel Rehberg Sedo)

15 Making the Story Real: Readers, Fans and the Novels of John Green (Jennifer Burek Pierce)

Subversive Readers

1 History, Politics and the Separate Spheres: Women’s Reading in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America (Mark Towsey)

2 Reading in Australian Prisons: An Exploration of Motivation (Mary Carroll and Jane Garner)

3 Hawking Terror: Reading the French Revolutionary Press (Valerae Hurley)

4 Hellfire and Cannibals: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Erotic Reading Groups and Their Manuscripts (Brian M. Watson)

5 The ‘tactile Ba[b]ble under which the blind have hitherto groaned’: Dots, Lines and Literacy for the Blind in Nineteenth-Century North America (Joanna L. Pearce)

6 British Cultures of Reading and Literary Appreciation in Nineteenth-Century Singapore (Porscha Fermanis)

7 Moral Readership and Political Apprenticeship: Commentaries on English Education in India, 1875–1930 (Pramod K. Nayar)

8 The ‘Pleasure and Profit’ of Reading: Adolescents and Juvenile Popular Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century (Trudi Abel)

9 Trans Culture and the Circulation of Ideas (Lisa Z. Sigel)

10 Reading History, History Reading in Modern Iranian Literature: Prison Writing as National Allegory or a World Literary Genre? (Alireza Fakhrkonandeh)

11 Beyond Mein Kampf: Bestsellers, Writers, Readers and the Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany

(Christian Adam)

12 Reading Spaces in Japanese-Occupied Indonesia: The Project to Create and Translate a Japanese-Language Library (Atsuhiko Wada, translated by Edward Mack)

13 Just Send Zhivago: Reading Over, Under and Through the Iron Curtain (Jessica Brandt)

14 African Readers as World Readers: UNESCO, Worldreader and the Perception of Reading (Ruth Bush)

15 The Kindle Era: DIY Publishing and African-American Readers (Kinohi Nishikawa)

16 ‘I loved the stories – they weren’t boring’: Narrative Gaps, the ‘Disnarrated’ and the Significance of Style in Prison Reading Groups (Patricia Canning)


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