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), 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.
 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.