JMD: One of the key insights your book develops is that many histories of reading “tend not to be histories of not reading—and thus to miss the very kinds of alternation and recombination and variations in time that I want to make visible as a property of book use in all its delights and its limits.” You make a thoroughly persuasive case, too, that “post-structuralism and media history provide approaches to texts that are vital in supplementing those of the social historian.” What are some of the most interesting and imaginative ways of not reading you have encountered, either in personal experience or in the eighteenth-century archive?
TL: Well, first; thanks, Jenny—and Sarah and Crystal—for making this forum possible. I’m really glad you’ve started The Rambling. Thinking about academic work downstream and upstream of that moment it gets published seems really important at the moment.
As for not reading, my life is embarrassingly full of reading I haven’t done, some of which would be genuinely embarrassing to talk about. But what I find interesting about print reading, at least, is that so many of the activities it promotes—political activism; sex; walking; talking—remain genuinely incompatible with reading a book. Whether sentences are digital or not, you simply can’t read them when you are mining coal or cleaning the kitchen (though audiobooks and radio and podcasts are interesting counter-examples of course). This means that as a way of life, print reading always promoted a pattern of alternation.
In that bit of my introduction you cite, I’m trying to explain how historians might get at that rhythm—for example, by thinking of not reading as blue beads on a string where reading is represented by red ones: reading, not reading, reading, not reading. If it’s the pattern we’re trying to see, then we have to make those blue beads visible as the intervals between repetitions of a single book, or as markers of the rate reading picks up at certain times of life or certain seasons. If you only count the red beads, there’s no pattern to observe, just the empirical facts of one book after another having come to hand: red bead, red bead, red bead. That’s also why I’m claiming that post-structuralism, which insists on seeing discursive structures in time, is still so important.
JMD: Chapter Two is my particular favorite in terms of the ways you weave together the case studies of Elizabeth Carter, William Grenville and Amelia Opie. I was especially captivated by the image you produce of a page in Grenville’s reading notes in which he has, as you say, “folded each page, creating two columns, of which only the right-hand one is ever entirely full,” with the left-hand column used “for marking new sequences of readings at a later stage.”
This structure allows him to map reading “along two axes, a vertical one that marks Grenville’s zigzagging progress through a text, and a horizontal one that records, from right to left across the page, the different runs of reading that occur during the three years.” How did you find this fantastic example? Did you have other striking visual examples along these lines that didn’t make it into the book that you’d like to share here?
TL: I’m so glad you like that chapter. I love Grenville’s reading notes too. I found them by looking for—“reading notes/notes on reading” in the British Library’s Catalogue, hopeful that something would turn up. Not massively impressive archival technique. But the notebooks are really interesting in how they use the space of the page to map time. They ended up being quite important to the more theoretical things I have to say about space-time relation.
The only other image I would have liked to use is one showing James Lackington’s book catalogues. These were annotated lists he issued each year of his enormous remaindered and secondhand stock of books for sale in his Temple of the Muses bookshop. A few of these catalogues still exist in the British Library. What I like about them visually is how well-thumbed they are. I wanted to show them as an example of the anticipation of book reading as something that leaves its own trace—here as the hungry browser fondles the catalogue of titles she might read. But that’s really hard to capture in a photograph.
JMD: I don’t have a copy of your first book in front of me (Knowing Books: The Consciousness of Mediation in Eighteenth-Century Britain), but I have the impression that in this book you have further structured and refined a powerful and slightly unusual chapter structure that beautifully juxtaposes short but deep reading of individual texts or writers’ work in aid of a very clear and striking critical-theoretical argument. So, for instance, you have brilliant extended readings of novels (two of my favorites were those on Sir Charles Grandisonand Adeline Mowbray), but these discussions are also unusually compact. In our discipline of literary studies (or at least in my individual department and subfield), a lot of dissertation chapters especially start out as one long extended close reading of a single text, something that may make it difficult to publish either as an article or as a revised book chapter later on. Are you a naturally concise writer, or have you learned over years of writing how to select and discard? What advice would you offer to young scholars about what a good chapter looks and feels like?
TL: Well, the easy answer is that yes; I always write short. I like shortness: yeah for Lydia Davis. But your question has made me wonder about how long the best close readings should be. Aren’t really long readings of one text usually pretty descriptive or historical? I can think of a few great extended close readings—Alex Woloch and Viv Soni and Derrida do them—but most of the close readings that have rocked my world (I’m thinking here of Said’s of Mansfield Park; Terry Castle’s of Simple Story; Elaine Freedgood’s of Mary Barton;José Esteban Muñoz’s of James Schuyler) are short. But they are still the main show. All the rest is set up, rehearsal prop design, etc.
As a preface to the rest of my answer, though, I should probably say that almost every article I have ever written has been rejected in the first place for having too much going on. I seem constantly at risk of confusing readers who want to know what a piece is really about. Anonymous readers are constantly suggesting I split things into two articles or just focus on one text. But this makes me especially pleased that you think this chapter works.
As general advice, I’d say we can all afford to be much more aware of our readers, especially friendly ones. I was forced into this kind of thinking because I was writing a book about reading. But I think it’s a good idea to ask if what you are writing is going to be good to read. Would you find it boring? In books and dissertations, the tone I often like best is the one people strike in their introductions. And that may be because their readings are clearly handled as examples of a bigger argument rather than the focus.
JMD: Your book interweaves brief personal reflections with its theoretical and scholarly accounts of reading as it takes place over time: in the introduction, you talk about how the year in which you “thought most intensely about time” was one in which you were working very long hours as a university administrator: “’I have no time,’ I thought, ‘no time at all.’ And yet it was at that very ebb of intellectual life, that very point where my days felt more scheduled and more tightly packed than they ever had before, that I began to think about what reading books was to me.” Did you always know that these short personal interludes would be a part of the book, or did the fact creep up on you as a solution to some of the puzzles a book in progress inevitably poses around composition, revelation and argument?
TL: Those bits appeared mostly as an accident. I put them without thinking too much but I kept offering to Matt McAdam at JHU to take them out, thinking that they were really only there as place holders. Part of the reason they stayed, as you suggest, was to do with efficiency. It takes a lot to explain in abstract terms why working so hard that you can’t read correlates positively to the desire to read. But just saying that I was caught up in that cycle makes the point quickly. Also, you’ll know from your own work how discouraging it can be to look for clues about reading in the past. There are so few of them. So I was also thinking that by having those anecdotes about my reading in the book, I was leaving some record of it for the future.
But it also took a lot of good friends reading those chapters to convince me that the personal stuff had a place in an academic book. In that process I came to see those anecdotes were part of the way I wanted to tilt the book. They became notes to my friends, many of whom do enormous amounts of casual labor, administrative work and childcare and elder care. I knew that many of the people I wanted to read this book most were the very people who would have the least time to get it—so these snippets are there in part as solidarity with them.
JMD: I like it that you kick back against the widespread sentiment that digital media are primarily responsible for the difficulty we experience concentrating on one thing at a time and especially finding time to read books. (Do you know the wonderful Havel play The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, first performed in 1969? Its title would seem to provide evidence in support of your case!) You convey very effectively that readers have always complained about not having the time they would like to read, and that can result from causes both psychological and schedule-related. What’s the most boiled-down, commonsensical refutation of the “digital mediation makes concentration newly difficult” that you can offer?
TL: The simplest refutation of that claim that I know involves class. I’m convinced that the people who had time to concentrate for long periods of time on print media in the past belonged to a fairly specific tribe—one that has included children, patients, prisoners, but has always been dominated by people structurally exempt from manual and domestic work. Today’s complaints about media distraction come largely from within that tribe of people, readers who feel that the deep reading practices of the past have been disturbed by medial displacement of books from the centre of our lives. But of course a lot of these complaints come from men mourning the erosion of the life of the privileged intellectual or businessman, annoyed by having to book his own flights and having his kids’ dental appointments pop up in a shared Google calendar.
These complaints need to be set off against the huge uptake of reading, at least in some forms and at a world scale, by people who were always more likely to do it piecemeal. Working people are much less likely to see media as distraction. No one sitting in rural Ethiopia today newly hooked up to the Washington Post is going to describe that as an experience of distraction. No parent at the playground is going to complain about Twitter requiring only partial attention. My mother, who is a wonderful reader, worked all her life in manual jobs that left her too tired to read in the evenings; for her, the last years are ones that have given her books.
I don’t want to deny that I read more books when I don’t have access to the Internet. But the same was true of book-reading in relation to high seasons of the theatre or the harvest. As soon as you begin to parse media through time, formats appear much less determinate than time itself. The basic truth, I think, is that if we want to read more in meaningful ways we need to wean ourselves off compulsive work rather than just off new media.
Christina (Tina) Lupton is a Professor at the University of Warwick. She is the author most recently of Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
5 Questions With Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.