HIST 25406/35406


A History of Reading


Adrian Johns


Winter Quarter, 2010


All historical knowledge is mediated by the practice of reading.  This is conventionally understood not to matter.  But if reading is a practice that has its own history – if it is something the acquisition, conduct, properties, and impact of which has varied across times and places – then that conventional assumption is put in doubt.  In our generation, we have come to appreciate that reading is indeed a historical entity of this kind.  When we sit in a hushed Special Collections room and open a pamphlet originally produced for a coffeehouse in Restoration London, or a fragment of scripture from medieval Cluny, it is by no means obvious that our reading practice produces intellectual results commensurable with those of its original setting.  A history of reading is therefore a fundamental prerequisite for the continued reputation of cultural history in general.  This class is designed to provide the foundations for one.


As a field, the history of reading is still in its early stages.  Disputes continue to rage about basic issues of chronology, focus, purpose, and approach.  The enterprise itself is in flux.  This syllabus is therefore experimental and provisional to a greater than usual extent.  It does not presume to provide a single, coherent narrative.  Its structure is largely shaped by thematic considerations – by questions – and so each week we will deal with a range of different times and places.  The meetings amount to a series of “cuts” through the topic, each of which examines some issue or approach across a wide timescale.  Examples include the impact of page-layout, the places of reading, and the relations between reading and action.  Yet it is also very loosely chronological, in the sense that the “center of gravity” of the weekly reading lists proceeds overall forward in time from the introduction of the codex in the ancient Roman Empire to the digital revolution.  Students are warned that for reasons of time the syllabus as it is currently structured does not explicitly address non-Western cultures, but this could change.  In general, topics are subject to alteration depending on student interests.




There is a set text for the class: Steven Fischer, A history of reading (London: Reaktion, 2004 [2003]).  It is available in paperback and copies should be obtainable at the Seminary Co-op.  While it is often elementary and has many flaws, it seems to be the most usable single book on this topic.  Other readings are assigned on a weekly basis.




Class meets on Mondays at 12:30-3:20, in HM 102.  Attendance is required, except for legitimate, unpredictable causes.  (That is, illness or job interviews count; sports engagements do not.  You do not need a doctor’s note if you are ill.) 


Participation and requirements


I expect that participants will give presentations before the class at the regular Monday meetings.  The calendar for this is something we will need to work out at the first or second meeting. 


I also expect students to submit a brief discussion, the night before each class, to the ‘Discussion Board’ section of the course’s Chalk site.   This should not be a recital of the readings, but rather should articulate some question, theme, problem, or concern that you think it would be worth discussing in class.  Submitting these brief documents is a requirement.  I do not expect that we shall actually discuss all of them explicitly in the class meetings, but I find them very helpful anyway in suggesting to me areas to focus on or, on the other hand, to downplay.


Students must submit a term paper by the end of week 10.  This should be sent to me electronically, preferably by email.  It can be in any common file format.  Please include your name and the course number in the filename – it can be frustrating to be confronted by 15 files all entitled essay.doc.  You should include a bibliography, and follow proper academic referencing norms.  (I do not mind what particular set of conventions you use for references, as long as you are consistent.)  Extensions are at my discretion, and, as with class attendance, the most salient consideration is unpredictability.  Illnesses or job interviews are good reasons for extensions; sports events and deadlines in other classes are not. 




My office is Social Sciences 505.  My scheduled office hours are 10:00 to 12:00 on Fridays, but you are welcome to make an appointment for another time.  My email is johns@uchicago.edu; my phone number is 702 2334.






1.       2010-01-04 Introduction: Approaches


This will be an introductory session, with no assigned reading.  The texts listed below are general discussions, most of them classic agenda-setting pieces.  We will talk about what the history of reading is, and why it might be worth investigating.


R. Darnton, “History of reading,” in P. Burke (ed.), New perspectives on historical writing (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 140-67.

J. Kearney, The incarnate text: imagining the book in Reformation England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 1-40.

R. Chartier, “Texts, Printings, Readings,” in L. Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 154–75.

C. Ginzburg, The cheese and the worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller (New York: Dorset, 1989 [1976]), 27-51.

M. De Certeau, “Reading as Poaching,” in De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988 [1984]), Ch. 12 (165-76).



2.       2010-01-11 The page, the eye, and the mind


This session is about what the French call mise en page – that is, the cluster of skills, aesthetic preferences, and technological capacities that makes a “page” take on a certain kind of appearance, and affects what its contents are taken to mean.  The same “text” can easily take on quite different connotations if subjected to a new mise on page, as we are finding out anew with the digitization projects of our own age.  Many of the best examples, however, date from the first centuries of the codex, when the most basic conventions of page design had to be worked out, so we shall focus to some extent on that era.


Fischer, History of reading, chapters 2, 4.

A. Grafton and M. Williams, Christianity and the transformation of the book (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006), 133-77.

M. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Ch. 5: 156-88.

A. Petrucci, Writers and readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the history of written culture (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995), 132-44.

Hugh of St. Victor, “The Three Best Memory Aids for Learning History,” in M. Carruthers and J.M. Ziolkowski (eds.), The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2002), 32-40.

D.F. McKenze, “Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve,” in McKenzie (ed. P. McDonald and F.J. Suarez), Making meaning: ‘Printers of the mind’ and other essays (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 198-236.

A. Liu, “Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 31:1 (Autumn 2004), 49-84.



3.       [No meeting 2010-01-18 – MLK Day]



4.       2010-01-25 Traces of reading – annotations, marginalia, and commonplaces


Here we look at the practices that readers have adopted to record their readings and recall them to memory as needed.  Many annotation techniques were developed in the Renaissance to deal with the comparatively massive output of books created by the printing press in Western Europe.  They coincided with the rise of bibliographical techniques devoted to the classification of books themselves.  The traces readers left in the margins of pages survived in countless volumes kept in libraries and collections worldwide, and provide what is probably the best evidence we will ever have for reading practices in past times.  But how do we interpret them?


Fischer, History of reading, Ch. 5.

A. Blair, “Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload, ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003), 11-28.

A. Moss, Printed commonplace-books and the structuring of Renaissance thought (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 101-33.

W.H. Sherman, Used books: marking readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 71-86.

L. Jardine and A. Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy,” Past and Present, 129 (1990), 30-78.

Degory Wheare, The method and order of reading… histories (London, 1694 [1635]), 297-362 (in Course Documents section of Chalk site; note that these are small pages!).



5.       2010-02-01 Reading places – libraries and other spaces


One way to sort the various kinds of reading practice is to consider them in terms of where they are usually carried out.  Reading in a library is presumably a distinct practice from that in a subway train, or in a bedroom.  In fact, publishers over the centuries have created diverse forms of publication, with distinct typography and design, to cater to - and occasionally create - various sites for reading.  One of the best examples is the so-called “railway novel,” invented in the nineteenth century to exploit the new leisure time that came with the extension of the rail networks.  (Some were printed on the rear of timetables.)  We will concentrate on the best-known space designedly for reading, and one under great stress in our own time: the library. 


W. Clark, “On the Bureaucratic Plots of the Research Library,” in M. Frasca-Spada and N. Jardine (eds.), Books and the Sciences in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 190-206.

R. Chartier, “Libraries without Walls,” in Chartier, The Order of Books (Cambridge: Polity, 1994), 61-88.

W.H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 29-52.

“Sites of Reading,” in S.E. Casper, J.D. Groves, S.W. Nissenbaum, and M. Winship (eds.), A History of the Book in America: Volume 3: The Industrial Book 1840-1880 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press/American Antiquarian Society, 2007), 303-45.

G. Naudé (trans. J. Evelyn), Instructions Concerning Erecting of a Library (1661 [1627]), whole text (in Course Documents section of Chalk site).




6.       2010-02-08 Trusting, believing, and knowing


If you come across a printed opinion, how do you decide what degree of trust to accord to it?  In the history of print as a medium of knowledge, this is a key question.  It is also a very old one; medievalists have shown that when written administration took hold, it was by no means self-evident that documents warranted greater trust than orally transmitted memories.  Here we look at how practices to appraise, contest, and secure credit affected the history of reading, especially in the realms of politics and science. 


M.T. Clanchy, From memory to written record: England 1066-1307 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), Ch 9 (231-57).

L.A. Ferrell, The Bible and the people (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008), 127-57.

A. Johns, “Reading and Experiment in the early Royal Society,” in K. Sharpe and S.N. Zwicker (eds.), Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 244-71.

J.A. Secord, Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception, and secret authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 155-221.



7.       2010-02-15 Reading and revolutions


One of the commonplaces of the history of reading is that the practice played a central role in a series “revolutions” inaugurating modernity, from the English in the seventeenth century to the Russian in the twentieth.  It has often been represented that reading was and is necessarily a force for change, and perhaps an irresistible one.  But if there are really many forms of reading, with intricate relations to political culture, then the story has to be more complex than that.  How, then, did reading get its reputation as revolutionary?


S. Achinstein, Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 27-70.

W. Wittmann, “Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?” in G. Cavallo and R. Chartier (eds.), A History of Reading in the West (Cambridge: Polity, 1999), 284-312.

R. Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 67-91.

J. Soll, Publishing The Prince: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 89-114.

W. St. Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge, 2004), 235-67.

J. Milton, Areopagitica (many editions; original will be in the Course Documents section of the Chalk site).




8.       2010-02-22 The passions of the reader


When we historicize the practice of reading, we tend to focus on the powers of readers, who are seen as “poachers” or otherwise active appropriators.  We sometimes run the risk of forgetting that readers can feel themselves captured, converted, or transported by what they read.  But this sensibility too has a history – it has been understood and therefore experienced in different ways over the centuries.  In this session we look at the passions of readers confronted by powerful pages.  We also look at one of the most successful genres created to exploit the passions of readers.


A. Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 1998), 380-443.

R. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre (New York: Basic, 1984), Ch. 6: 215-56.

M.C. Jacob, “The Materialist World of Pornography,” in L. Hunt (ed.), The Invention of Pornography (New York: Zone, 1996), 157-202.

Thérèse Philosophe” (c.1748): extracts in R. Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1996), 249-99.




9.       2010-03-01 Reading, mass culture, and class


One original motivation for creating a history of reading – articulated by Roger Chartier in the reading for Week 1 – was to question assumptions about how social structure and culture map onto each other.  The idea was that “popular culture,” for example, might be defined in terms of a set of practices, rather than a peculiar set of texts.  A lot of work since then has tended to confirm that this is the case.  In fact, in the mid-twentieth century the subject of popular or working-class reading practices was very controversial.  It is interesting to ask how the conflicts over mass culture in that era relate to the development of a historical approach to reading in our own.


J. Rose, The intellectual life of the British working classes (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001), 237-55, 364-92.

J. Radway, A feeling for books: the Book-of-the-Month Club, literary taste, and middle-class desire (Chapel Hill: U. N. Carolina Press, 1997), 127-53.

R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London, 1957; many later editions), Chapter 7: 206-45.



10.     2010-03-08 Digital readings


Fischer, History of reading, Ch. 7.

A. Grafton, Codex in crisis (New York: Crumpled Press, 2008), 34-53.

R. Darnton, “The Future of Libraries,” in Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 43-58.

J. Evans, “Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship,” Science July 18, 2008 (321: 5887), pp.395-399.

R. Chartier, “Languages, Books, and Reading from the Printed Word to the Digital Text,” Critical Inquiry 31 (Autumn 2004), 133-52.

Sample pieces of digital literature from the Electronic Literature Organization, at http://www.eliterature.org/.