“Reading Practices,” Notes toward a definition

[Feature image: Study: At a Reading Desk by Sir Frederick Leighton (1877)]

The members of the Reading and Selving seminar are now busy assembling presentations on the reading practices of different periods in the West–from monasticism to the “reading revolution” (or lack thereof) of the eighteenth century. As I was preparing the directions for the exercise, I realized that I had been taking for granted that students knew exactly what I meant when I used the terminology of “reading practices.” And not only in this class, but in many others as well. That no student has ever asked for a clarification, I realized, could be bad sign. Students might be assuming that there’s actually not much to the concept, and then taken it for granted in turn. “That must just mean the practice of reading–which I’ve been doing forever (case closed).” All of this taking for granted, though, puts us at risk of missing the historical argument embedded in the phrase–at least for scholars who’ve been reading a lot of Roger Chartier and his ilk. “Reading practices” is a succinct way of applying the Hartleyan formula “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” to the history of reading. We use this phrase, in other words, as means of acknowledging the complexity of reading and the variety of its forms across times and climes.

So I set out to clip a definition from one of the trusty guides to the history of reading on my bookshelf. I quickly discovered, though, that while the phrase “reading practices” is ubiquitous, rare is the scholar who pauses to provide even a minimalist definition. The taking-for-granted seems to be a hallmark of the field. (Note: If readers have such a passage ready at hand, do send it!) For my students, then, I decided to offer a list of considerations, which reflect my sense of the major issues that scholars attend when they study “reading practices.” I label these “considerations” because scholars invoke the term “reading practices” with differing emphases. One might use the term in discussing the history of interpretation, perhaps with a nod to the changing materiality of the text in question. Another might invoke it within a wider discussion of changing habits of consumption, particularly on the part of a group–say, the increasing diversity of women’s reading in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Within the more robust studies of “reading practices” these matters might qualify as multiple variables or coordinates.

Here are six seven (revised 9/28) such considerations (which are, of course, not an exhaustive list):

  1. The ends of reading: Why read? What does the reader hope to gain from the experience? Knowledge? Entertainment? Prestige? A cure to boredom? Salvation?
  2. The methods of reading: How do readers navigate the material? Are there procedures that guide how they move through the textual content (example, do you have to start at the beginning)? Or is reading more haphazard an exercise?┬áDo they try to follow official–perhaps in religious or academic settings–theories of interpretation? Do readers employ multiple strategies to derive meaning from their reading? In a more practical vein, do they comment on or mark up their reading? Or are such incursions forbidden (officially or unofficially)?
  3. The content of reading: What do people read? What kinds of writing? How much variety is available to readers? How do genres relate to matters of identity and social station?
  4. The technologies of reading: What does one read–what kind(s) of object(s)? What does the materiality of the text signify about it? How does the materiality shape the reading experience (through, for example, paratextual features)? What other instruments does one need at hand when reading? How does one gain access to reading material? How does on store or preserve it for future use (if that’s possible)? More fundamentally, what kind of script does one read (and how does the script affect the reading process)?
  5. The physiology of reading: How do the body move (or remain still) within the reading process? How much physical labor does (or should) reading involve? Is it silent? Or does one read aloud (or mumble)? How does a reader’s age and sex shape the way the reading body moves as well as the kinds of methods and content a reader may experience?
  6. The setting of reading: Where does one read? What physical settings are considered ideal for (or intolerable to) reading? In what social settings should reading take place? Or should it occur in solitude? How does context relate to content?
  7. The rituals of reading: This addition was suggested by my colleague Matt Lundin, who has written about early modern book culture. Rituals of reading are, of course, very important to the so-called “religions of the book.” But I think that the term applies just as well to non-religious routine acts of reading, which are often invested with a kind of personal sacredness. That might take a communal form (as in Bloomsday readings) or an individual one (as in someone reading the Times every Sunday at Starbucks).

As this list has already begun to suggest, these are not discrete categories; rather, they are all entangled. What we read and how we read it often depends on where we are. (Consider the example of reading at or for school.) In other cases, we seek out particular places in order to have a certain kind of reading experience (say, heading to a coffee shop or a park in order to read a few poems or a novel).

Or consider Leighton’s picture above. A set of coordinates like these might help us to be more sensitive to what a picture like this has to tell us. It bears the ambiguous title “Study: At a reading desk.” Whose “study,” we might ask, the painter’s or the reader’s (or both)? Our reader is a child, and female, notable choices already. She is not situated in a pedagogical scene. She reads on her own in a posture and setting that seem to be of her own choosing. She uses an ornate portable reading desk to prop up her book, which features what appears to be elaborate borderwork on the page. She has no writing utensils at hand. She is, most obviously of all, a Westerner but her dress and backdrop suggest an Eastern setting (and her pose vaguely recalls that of the Buddha). What’s valued here is the leisurely practice of reading, which is enhanced by the sumptuous setting. Critics have rightly argued that is an idealized, even fanciful, scene. But that doesn’t mean that it has nothing to tell us about reading practices at the time, or the cultural ideals for reading. Even the idea that a picture of reading should be so lavish is telling–and might strike some moderns as strange.

I’d be happy to learn that there’s a perfect passage┬ádiscussing the meaning of “reading practices” in an essay by Adrian Johns or Robert Darnton. Or to entertain others’ suggestions about the usage of the phrase. If a better scheme doesn’t surface, I may also come back to this post later to provide some OED-style sample quotations.

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