History and Future of the Book: Imagine There’s No Reading Public

The theme of this week’s section of The Book History Reader is “The impact of print,” and it makes sense that when discussing this impact, the nature and historical development of the reading public becomes one of the central concerns. A quick look at a slight difference in the way the two oldest pieces of scholarship we’ve read so far, Marcel Thomas’s “Manuscripts” (1976) and Elizabeth Eisenstein’s “Defining the Initial Shift” (1979),[1] discuss the historical development of the reading public demonstrates a difficulty we fall pretty easily into when imagining a reading public. Thomas writes, “A new reading public emerged in the late century, with the slow and gradual change from feudalism. A bourgeois class was appearing alongside the nobility and the clergy, equally capable of developing a literary culture” (151). Thomas’s focus is actually pre-printing press, as he is mostly concerned with the impact the use of paper in books had, making them somewhat easier and less expensive to produce, which to some extent facilitated the emergence of a reading public. Without necessarily contradicting or undermining the way Thomas conceives of this idea, the problems Eisenstein raises call our attention to how quickly we tend to arrive at a notion of “the reading public” that is actually fairly vague and abstract, perhaps loosely equating it with a notion of a general public. She notes, for instance, the difficulties involved in trying to ascertain literacy rates from the early years of the printing press (240), along with the possibility that assumptions about who the actual—or even intended—audiences of books were can be inaccurate (243-244). In trying to figure out just who the people were who were most involved in ‘the initial shift’ brought about by the rise of the printing press, she writes, “it is probable that only a very small portion of the entire population was affected by the initial shift. Nevertheless within this relatively small and largely urban population, a fairly wide social spectrum may have been involved” (241). This at once supports the idea of a reading public that somewhat coincides with a generalized public while it also forces us to remember that this public was composed of a specific set of people who lived under certain conditions—that when we’re talking about the emergence of a reading public, we’re talking, at least at first, about a new and small portion of the population.

There’s nothing, I think, especially mind-blowing about being reminded of the historical specificity of the development of a reading public, but still Eisenstein’s attention to the specific makeup of this class—and perhaps even moreso her attention to the problems we encounter when trying to figure out more specifically who might make up this class at a given moment in history—does serve to resist the abstraction of this idea. And attention to this is important because our notion of what the reading public is tends to influence the way we conceive of the importance of literature within society. For example, as was mentioned in one of our readings from last week (and discussed briefly in class I believe), the vast majority of readers of contemporary poetry in present American society are writers of poetry. This fact causes a great deal of consternation to a lot of people who write poetry, and it is also often brought up by people who want to dismiss the importance or relevance or value of contemporary poetry. The underlying assumption behind both the consternation and the dismissal tends to be that poetry by default should be read by a much more general audience if it is any good, and perhaps that the value of any writing depends on its being read by the general reading public. But these ideas in turn rely on a heavily abstracted idea of a reading public that is difficult to maintain when faced with a more developed understanding—or rather an awareness of the limits of our understanding—of just who the reading public is composed of.

What I mostly want to suggest, though I’m having difficulty bringing it together right now, is that we it is useful to remind ourselves that a reading public is not a naturally existing category of society. It emerges out of a set of specific historical conditions, and changes over time in ways that both influence and are influenced by social and technological and political history. For much of human history it did not exist, and it is entirely possible (in fact, absolutely probable) that it will no longer exist at some point in the future. Its existence is dependent on the creation, promotion, and distribution of books (or more properly of print), all of which are of course in turn dependent on the existence of a reading public. There are people who believe this public is of a great deal of value, but it seems like for those people, the care required to maintain a reading public is often thought to be a kind of embarrassing fact that undermines the pure value of literature, and the difficulty in the present of maintaining it is thought to indicate cultural decline. I wonder if it might be more useful to begin with an assumption of the precariousness of a reading public.

[1] Does anyone else think it’s weird how difficult The Book History Reader makes it to figure out when the selected essays were published? It sort of bugs me.

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5 Responses to History and Future of the Book: Imagine There’s No Reading Public

  1. shandilynne says:

    I find your comment concerning the possible need to maintain a reading public intriguing, because a reading public does, in a way, seem necessary to the survival of literary production or any kind of textual creation. However, at the same time, your comments on poetry and it’s more limited audience could also be used as an example for how a vast reading public truly is not necessary. I say this because, as I understand it, poetry’s reputation for being inaccessible (and therefore unread) originated with modernist poets like T.S. Eliot, who purposefully made their poetry inaccessible to (or at least extremely difficult to understand and be followed by) the “common” reader. Yet although it is mainly only poets who read poetry, poetry has certainly survived despite such an elitist reputation. So my question for you, then, would be: Can textual and literary creation survive the loss of a reading public? (Basically, is some kind of reading public, even a minuscule one, necessary for continued literary creation?)

    • Marcus says:

      Actually, I tend to think there’s really nothing all that wrong with the present fact that the reading public of contemporary poetry is composed mostly of poetry writers. Partly because that development has happened at the same time that the number of writing (and published) poets has gone drastically up. It might be true that the ratio of poetry readers to all readers has dwindled, but it’s also true that the number of people actively involved in poetry is probably vastly greater than it was a hundred years ago. So it seems like the poetry reading public has a pretty unique makeup at this point in history.

      But I guess I’d say it’s hard for me to see how literary creation could survive the loss of a reading public–it’s just important not to assume that a reading public should be ever-growing and massive. What’s more important is the extent to which people can be involved in a reading public, and I think maintaining that facilitating that involvement is pretty important. With poetry that involvement these days seems to take the form of also writing & sharing poetry; with novels, it seems like that involvement had more to do with discussion among a group of readers who were all aware of the same novel(s). There are surely other models of involvement in reading publics as well.

      • lmaruca says:

        Don’t forget poetry slams! These have usefully? excitingly? dismayingly? brought new “readers” into the fold–though of course, these “readers” are actually “listeners,” as the slam brings poetry back to its oral roots. They also highlight poetry’s tenuous and often embittered relationship to pop music, whether we’re talking Dylan or hiphop.

  2. vinnyhaddad says:

    This topic fascinates me as I have become one of these curmudgeons who wishes the “reading public” would care about serious fiction, devote time to approaching/rereading difficult texts. I suppose the argument isn’t far from that of thinking people “should” read poetry. Yet the premise on the one hand relies on a broken crutch: that there was ever a time when the “reading public” was broader and more cultured and more disciplined than they are today. The frustration, I believe, comes from a false optimism that we should as a “reading public” experience some form of progress, that as literacy has become second nature (has it?), the “reading public” could engage with a more difficult, and therefore somehow better, set of literature. What has seemed to have happened, instead, is that the same groups of people have remained readers of serious fiction (social isolates or upper-class Americans with a deeply ingrained “Protestant ethic”). Not only does this appear to be true, but the shrinkage of these groups also more than likely. As you depressingly pointed out, there is a potential for a future without a reading public. So it seems the image of a bell curve, where the reading public grows to a peak of readers and then decreases, would be more accurate than one of exponential growth. C’est la vie.

  3. lmaruca says:

    Marcus, you are correct in pointing the vague character of “reading public” in early book history. Earlier works tended to make grand claims and point to large issues; later works (in the last 15 years or so) have started coloring in the gaps and painting a much more diverse and local picture. Warner was one of the first to call attention to the need for this, and to attempt it himself. We will talk more about reading in a couple weeks, and see more specific subcultures emerge and get discussed there as well. I like that the chronological ordering of these essays does help us see the development of a field.

    But yes, the dating issue. I find that a remarkable lapse on the parts of Finkelstein, McCleery and/or their editors at Routlege. How can book historians (but really, any scholar), not highlight where these works first appeared and when they were originally published? I find this not just weird, but shockingly shoddy.

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