Readers Hold the Key to a Book’s Meaning

Augustus Leopold Egg, "Traveling Companions" (1862)

Augustus Leopold Egg, “Traveling Companions” (1862)

If you want to read a fascinating and very thorough account of how literary scholars are studying the reading experience, check out Jennifer Howard’s “Secret Life of Readers” in the Chronicle of Higher EducationYou’ll discover that English professors today are taking seriously subjects that previous generations would have decreed irrelevant.

For instance, does the venue where you engaged with a book make a difference? Will the book be different if you read it by yourself, listen to it on your car’s disk player, or discuss it in the context of a class or book group?

In the 1950s when I was growing up, a negative answer would have seemed self-evident. What mattered was the text itself and the reader simply wasn’t considered. Scholars, inspired or intimidated by Sputnik and the emphasis on science, attempted to study literature the way that scientists study matter. They separated texts out from their contexts and broke them down into their constituent elements.

Today, admittedly, we continue to treat texts as though they are “things” that different people can recognize. After that is granted, however, we lose something valuable if we don’t look at the symbolic value that different books have for different people and the multiplicity of ways that different people use literature. Current reader response criticism is attempting to rectify the oversights of the past.

The Chronicle article talks about how Harvard’s Leah Price, author of How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, has been attempting to recreate Victorian reading experiences. She says that she looks for “tear drops on the page” and is interested in “hard evidence of what the book did to its reader.” And also, the article adds, “what the reader did with the book”:

Price cares not just about the content of books but how Victorians used them to create or control social relations. Books “can be used both as a bridge between people and as a wedge between people,” she says. She turned to Victorian novels and stories to unearth evidence of how Victorians used books to woo and to repel. She also consulted nonfiction sources, including comportment guides, newspapers and magazines, and Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Price gives a great Anthony Trollope example of how reading can be used as a wedge:

In Anthony Trollope’s novel The Small House at Allington, Price finds an especially harsh example of domestic distancing. Badly matched honeymooners, riding together in a railway carriage, feel more warmly about their reading material than they do about each other.

Trollope describes the scene: “He longed for his Times, but resolved at last, that he would not read unless she read first. She also had remembered her novel; but by nature she was more patient than he, and she thought that on such a journey any reading might perhaps be almost improper.”

In this blog I promulgate the idea that literature should be seen as an essential item in our life survival kit. Literary scholars have begun to take a more favorable view of such an approach than they once did.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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