In his ‘Postscript’ toThe Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco famously concluded that ‘books talk among themselves’, summing up the postmodern sense in which texts forever exceed the bounds of both authorial intention and reader interpretation. Three centuries earlier, Jonathan Swift’s The Battle of the Books (1704) had imagined them not only talking but violently quarrelling over their respective merits. Such accounts have a touch of the uncanny because they elide the human agent, implying that the contents of our libraries may be talking not only among themselves but behind our backs. If the title of Abigail Williams’s The Social Life of Books suggests this kind of papery whispering, however, the subtitle – Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home – puts humans squarely back into the picture. This is, in fact, not the social life of books but the social life of readers; or rather, of people for whom reading, and the discussion of reading, forms one part of the social glue that binds them to others and enables them to define themselves. The Social Life of Books is itself highly readable – not, as is sometimes assumed, a pejorative description of academic prose. With discussion of previous studies and critical debates mainly confined to endnotes, the bulk of the text is devoted to a series of lively anecdotes about eighteenth-century people acquiring, reading, and writing about their books, and sometimes (as in one shopkeeper’s account of a ‘twenty-four-hour drinking binge’, pp. 41–2) engaging in less literary forms of sociability. These range from better-known figures like Frances Burney, Anne Lister, and the Wordsworths to those whose letters and diaries we encounter here for the first time: ambitious young lawyer Dudley Ryder, bored spinster Gertrude Savile, verse collector Eliza Chapman, teenage apprentice and book club founder George Sandy. Williams’s research in local record offices and works of family history has revealed a wealth of such sources, covering a variety of locations and walks of life. Her work focuses on the aspirational ‘middling sort’ (only the flap text uses the potentially anachronistic ‘middle class’) although, given that the cast of characters ranges from the newly literate to the duchess of Portland, this is perhaps an artificial distinction. The role that books play in their lives also varies widely, from an occasional diversion to a serious programme of educational and/or spiritual improvement, though few among them could be classed as ‘professional’ readers or critics. The book’s examples span the ‘long eighteenth century’ from about 1690 to 1820, only occasionally (as when describing the elocution movement or changes in domestic architecture) telling a story of chronological development. Of necessity, however, the preponderance of evidence comes from the latter half of the period, which provides a greater volume of surviving correspondence, diaries, and other documentation. One deliberate omission is the work of Jane Austen (apart from a brief discussion of the ‘private theatricals’ in Mansfield Park, pp. 169–70), which has already received ample analysis elsewhere. More generally, Williams largely avoids depictions of reading in novels and on the stage, on the grounds that these are not necessarily reflective of real practice (p. 212) – although the fictional examples that do arise suggest that there could be more of a crossover between this history of reading and literary criticism. Following a brief introduction, we begin with a chapter on ‘How to Read’, covering debates about sermon delivery and the rise of the elocution industry. Borrowing techniques from the stage, elocution manuals taught how most effectively to communicate emotions through voice, expression, and gesture while maintaining the appearance of ‘nature, informality, and ease’ (p. 16): neither preaching nor domestic recital, after all, was meant to appear overly theatrical. In the 1750s, meanwhile, a craze for oratory led to the creation of much-parodied, male-only ‘spouting clubs’ that served as a ‘hobby for aspirant tradesmen and a spectator sport’ (p. 23). If this discussion involves something of an elision between ‘speaking’ and ‘reading’, it is one that the texts themselves often perform: public speaking is generally imagined as the recital of a pre-existing text, while reading is assumed to be done out loud before an audience (however large or small), as a form of both communion and display. This chapter also introduces two ideas that are central to the book as a whole: that reading served as an important aspect of the conversational ‘politeness’ that defined social exchanges and mobility in this period, and that what was read were often only excerpts from longer works, potentially edited for propriety or marked up with instructions for how to create dramatic effects. These aspects are further addressed in subsequent chapters discussing the practicalities of reading in company, which use textual and pictorial sources to create a three-dimensional picture of eighteenth-century reading as an embodied and social activity. The spaces where it took place mattered, as did changes in furniture and posture – ‘Women’s reading became associated with sofas and softness rather than with the intellectually rigorous upright reading of men, and young women were castigated for this unbecoming lounging’ (p. 51) – and matters of heat and light. Living in Yorkshire, Anne Lister describes reading by a window with the curtains nearly drawn, a ‘plaid wrapped fourfold round my loins, & 2 greatcoats put on over all, besides my leather knee-caps on & a thick dressing gown threwn across my knees over coats & everything’. Her diary entry, as Williams notes with a well-deserved exclamation mark, was written on the 19th of June (p. 56). It is thus unsurprising that the fireside emerges as an important focal point for evening entertainment, and that shared reading was often motivated as much by economy in candles and failing eyesight as by ideals of sociability. An edition of Mary Davys’s The Reform’d Coquette (1736) was advertised as ‘printed on a large Letter, for the Use of antient Ladies’, but there was often a trade-off between price and the readability of print (p. 69). The question of access to reading is also addressed: despite an expansion in the market, books remained a luxury item (p. 95). Sharing – sometimes involuntary, in the case of theft and unauthorised borrowing by servants – allowed each volume to reach a wider audience, further enabled by the rise of book clubs and circulating libraries. Yet these were themselves not cheap, and varied in their focus: while some match the conventional view of a fiction-obsessed period, others contained hardly any novels at all (p. 111). The second half of The Social Life of Books is then divided according to genre, with chapters on verse (partly drawing on Williams’s work with the Digital Miscellanies Project), drama, fiction, and works of ‘piety and knowledge’ – all of which involved very different forms of sociability among sometimes overlapping circles of readers. Taken together, these chapters allow us to see how the canon of eighteenth-century literature that we have inherited as an object of study may look very different from what ordinary people of the time actually read. Their consumption was often piecemeal and guided more by the demands of immediate use – whether for practical instruction, social advancement, or entertainment – than by standards of literary quality. Gertrude Savile described her own reading of romances in which she could ‘find no morall or design’ as a kind of addiction, a relief from solitude when no other company was available: ‘Such books I read as people take Drams, to support for an hour sinking Spirits, and alass! The more is taken, the more is nesassary’ (p. 208). Perhaps the most revelatory finding in The Social Life of Books, in fact, is how much of the eighteenth-century experience of literacy was what we might now term ‘bad’ reading. Lonely readers like Savile are drawn to books they cannot fully endorse, while others will hear things read in company, for the sake of the shared experience, that they might not touch out of it. Poor elocutionists mangle an author’s style, poems about religious experience are hastily rewritten to serve as love tokens, longer texts are commonly excerpted and abridged, volumes of multi-volume works are read in isolation or in the wrong order; communal reading is interrupted by hairdressing, conversation, boredom, a lack of light. The books we now purchase in tidy scholarly editions or view with reverence in Special Collections – relegated, as Clara Reeve wrote of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, to lie ‘upon the shelves of the learned, and the curious in old writings’ – once had a much more scattershot and chaotic existence. Indeed, Williams demonstrates that books that have not been read at all were just as capable of forming part of the cultural conversation. Kirsty Milne’s recent examination of how the ‘Vanity Fair’ motif was transformed in this period (At Vanity Fair: From Bunyan to Thackeray, Cambridge University Press, 2015), for instance, showed the trope in circulation as a ‘cultural memory’ among people who might never have encountered its original iteration in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Williams’s study goes beyond textual references to what we might now term tie-in merchandise, featuring a number of well-chosen illustrations. Would the owners of medallions, figurines, and tea sets featuring ‘Poor Maria’ – the famously sad woman encountered in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey – necessarily have read the novel itself, either in its entirety or as an excerpt of this set-piece scene? As Williams admits, ‘We can never know what sorts of conversations these objects enabled’ (p. 228): the intersection between textual, material, and oral culture is where the available evidence breaks down. Overall, The Social Life of Books serves as a welcome corrective to the popular idea of reading as immersive and isolated, and of having become increasingly so over the course of the eighteenth century as readers retreated into their closets to devour the new genre of the novel. Even for Austen’s Catherine Morland, the paradigmatic novel-devourer in Northanger Abbey, the greatest part of the pleasure comes from using conversation about these books to cement her new friendships with Isabella Thorpe and the Tilneys. At the same time, Williams does acknowledge that reading can be anti-social: it can separate people from each other when unshared (the boorish John Thorpe refuses to read The Mysteries of Udolpho: he and Catherine have nothing to talk about) and can serve as a barrier rather than a bridge in social situations. In one memorable moment, the novelist Frances Burney and her father describe a visit from Samuel Johnson, who is not in the mood for conversation: having examined the bookshelves, he selects a volume and, ‘standing aloof from the company, which he seemed and clear to forget, he began … very composedly, to read to himself; and as intently as if he had been alone in his own study. We were all excessively provoked: for we were languishing, fretting, expiring to hear him talk.’ Johnson also took reading matter with him to dinner, sitting at the table with his book wrapped up in the tablecloth or on his lap, where again, it formed a bulwark against talking and engaging with others. (p. 83) The entire episode recalls modern-day complaints about rude millennials who cannot be separated from their mobile phones in company, even as other users argue that they only pull out their devices to share a news item or a video of a baby sloth. In both cases, the issue is not one of technology but politeness (baby sloths are seldom impolite; Dr Johnson clearly was). As Williams concludes, recent anxieties about our ‘uniquely distracted’ digital age can similarly be set in the context of eighteenth-century concerns about overly easy, partial reading, or the undue immersion of young people in fictional worlds (pp. 277–8). Those who lament the ubiquity of social media should remember that human beings have always been social animals, and have carried on conversations through, and about, the media available to them. In place of family reading circles and commonplace books, we now have entire online communities devoted to the consumption and discussion of literature: book blogging and vlogging, Goodreads and Amazon, ‘popular highlights’ on e-reader devices making the text into a palimpsest of others’ most notable moments. Just as epistolary exchanges enabled the extension of the ‘domestic’ realm beyond its physical confines, these networks recreate the ideal eighteenth-century living room as an open space within which pockets of conversation can coexist. For all the apparently solitary image of the reading process – the purview of introverts who would rather be ‘at home with a book’ – readers continue to talk among themselves. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
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