Rosalind Crone

Rediscovering the eighteenth-century common reader

Rediscovering the eighteenth-century common reader.

Until recently, literary historians believed that the common reader was a figure largely lost in the past. The perceived lack of sources that would enable scholars to make substantial assessments of historical reading practices and uses of texts often led to an unbalanced, text-based approach to the history of reading. Frustrated with the limits presented by these studies, a new generation of literary historians emerged during the 1990s, their aim to place the emphasis back on the reader. However, by basing their studies on fragmentary and unrepresentative sources, namely individual accounts by the middling classes and working people that both listed the texts they read and their opinions of them, these literary historians highlighted difference and variability in reading experiences. These scholars dismissed both the possibility and the value of tracing common patterns of reading and of studying groups of readers, or audiences, of specific texts.

However, it is necessary for the sub-discipline of the history of reading to move beyond this pessimism. Uncovering common reading patterns in history is both valuable and possible. This is, in large part, what the Reading Experience Database intends to demonstrate. At present, RED contains a great deal of information on the reading experiences of individual readers extracted, for example, from their diaries and letters. But this project has also begun to mobilise its resources to tackle one crucial problem in the history of reading: that the vast majority of readers in history do not consciously record what they read or initiate discussion about it. Recognising that at regular moments in history, semi- or fully-literate common people are challenged, often indirectly, to reveal their reading habits, RED has begun to incorporate sources which superficially appear to have very little to do with the history of reading. This paper presents one case-study of this wider project, demonstrating the tremendous usefulness of such sources. In particular, it shows how newspaper audiences and reading practices in eighteenth-century London can be uncovered in criminal trial proceedings, namely, the Old Bailey Sessions Papers.

As a printed text distributed widely throughout the metropolis, the OBSP had a life and readership of its own. But perhaps more noteworthy are the shared reading practices that statements of witnesses reveal in its pages. This paper describes how interrogations of witnesses illustrate the formulaic use of newspapers by readers in the prevention and discovery of crime. Different audiences, for example, from pawnbrokers to those who walked in public spaces, used advertisements for lost property to safeguard against the receipt of stolen goods or to return valuable items they had found to the rightful owners. Furthermore, witness statements also disclose common locations for reading amongst various audiences. While some regularly read the newspaper in the local public house, others participated in private sharing networks. In sum, obscure yet substantial historical sources, such as criminal trial proceedings, enable us to study important relationships between texts and audiences by reconstructing the shared experiences that shaped the readers of specific texts.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.