New Books, New Readers, New Evidence
New Books, New Readers, New Evidence: challenging 19th-century readership models.
In late nineteenth-century England, opinions about how books shaped their readers and how the burgeoning numbers of both might best be policed and catered for dominated the pages of literary journals, newspapers and library reports. For the readership historian, this mass of ‘evidence’ about taste, canon-formation and the relationship between books and readers can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it provides us with proof of a lively and long-lasting debate about the complex relationship between books and their readers which points to an unprecedented level of interaction between the two; on the other, the sheer volume of new books, new readers and new opinions about both makes it almost impossible to quantify or verify actual reading practices in this period. Was there really an ill-educated ‘herd’ of new Board School readers bent on intellectual and moral self-destruction? Or were the period’s penny papers and best sellers devoured alongside other types of reading, which provided both pleasure and self-instruction? How fruitful (or accurate) is the oft-quoted divide between ‘art’ and ‘the market’ in a society already divided along class lines? How much can we really tell about readers from sales figures, distribution practices and borrowing records? This paper examines traditional forms of evidence for the history of reading in the nineteenth century, arguing that while each has something to offer to the historian, further research of a new kind is required in order to confirm or challenge findings which frequently and problematically equate proof of purchase or even mere availability with the actual act of reading. The paper concludes by introducing a major new AHRC-funded initiative, The Reading Experience Database (RED) project, whose aim is to collect as many documented reading experiences as possible of British readers between 1450 and 1945. The next two papers in the panel explore some of RED’s findings to date, with the aim of stimulating group discussion of the question of evidence for the history of reading more generally