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Volume 10, No. 9—December 2000/January 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

The History of Reading
We asked five scholars to recommend the best books about reading.

Geoffrey Nunberg, principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and editor of The Future of the Book (California, 1996).

"It's easy to consider 'the history of reading' more or less synonymous with 'the history of reading books.' As soon as we step outdoors, though, we realize that a great proportion of the writing that we deal with in our daily lives is inscribed on walls or other public surfaces—that is, it is epigraphic rather than bibliographic. This oversight is unfortunate, because the epigraphic tradition may offer a better model for the forms of writing that are emerging in the new media.

"The Italian historian Armando Petrucci has done more than anyone else to revive interest in public writing. His groundbreaking Public Lettering: Script, Power, and Culture (Chicago, 1993) surveys the forms and uses of epigraphic writing from classical antiquity to the twentieth century. In Writing the Dead: Death and Writing Strategies in the Western Tradition (Stanford, 1998), Petrucci explores commemorative writing from the earliest funerary inscriptions to the Vietnam Memorial, brilliantly demonstrating how the history of writing recapitulates the intricate relations of technology and power. David Henkin's City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (Columbia, 1998) is an engaging and insightful examination of the multifarious forms of public writing early New Yorkers encountered in their urban peregrinations. The book covers everything from signs, posters, and handbills to newspapers and paper money."

Anthony Grafton, professor of history at Princeton University and author of Commerce With the Classics: Ancient Books and Renaissance Readers (Michigan, 1997).

"In Kulturtransfer in der frühen Neuzeit (Cultural transfer in early modernity, Mohr Siebeck, 1999), Sabine Vogel studies how Italian humanism was adapted to French tastes in the sixteenth century. This tale is usually told in heroic terms: Individual scholars disregard their immediate economic and career interests in order to carry out a bold campaign for a new culture. Vogel takes a very different approach. She uses several hundred books printed in Lyon as the basis for a study in 'cultural transfer,' which turns out to mean cultural transformation. As Lyon's publishers, aided by scholars and press correctors, formatted the classics for modern readers, Vogel shows, they did more than transfer to northern soil the demanding, encyclopedic erudition of Italian humanists; they also adapted the research to meet the needs of schoolboys and merchants. Printers, scholars, and correctors, working together, created a new culture for an audience of bons esprits, who moved easily between Latin and French, preferred collections of passages to complete texts, and used classical citations with freedom and artistry, often to new effect. Vogel also demonstrates that the foundations for the essayistic culture developed by Montaigne were laid by cultural impresarios out to make a profit."

Paul Saenger, curator of rare books at Chicago's Newberry Library and author of Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, 1997).

"Scholars have just begun to explore the ways in which physical changes in the book have affected the history of reading. In The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding (Ashgate, 1999), J.A. Szirmai provides a synthesis of his extensive research on the subject. He describes the introduction of the protruding cover—a cover with a surface area larger than that of the pages it protects—and the evolution of the convex spine in Gothic bindings, notably in works produced at the Abbey of St. Gall. These structural changes are inextricably linked to the revolutionary introduction of vertical shelving in the fifteenth century and hence to the birth of modern libraries. Henri-Jean Martin's La naissance du livre moderne: Mise en page et mise en texte du livre français (XIVe-XVIIe siècles) (Editions du Cercle de la Librairie, 2000) intertwines the history of the printed book with details about aspects of text and page format, such as chapter division, that are suggestive of the evolution of silent reading habits in early modern Europe. This work broadens the science of codicology by applying its principles to the printed tomes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."

Adrian Johns, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology and author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 1998).

"Any study of reading has to start with A History of Reading in the West (Massachusetts, 1999), edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Chartier more or less invented the history of reading as a branch of scholarly investigation, and this is the first single-volume attempt to arrive at a coherent chronology of the practice, from antiquity to the present. At a more microscopic scale, an exemplary investigation is Kevin Sharpe's Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (Yale, 2000). Sharpe details his discovery of what might be the holy grail for historians of reading: a near-complete set of manuscripts recording a mid-seventeenth-century member of parliament's responses to all kinds of books, from Machiavelli to Hobbes. Sharpe's work highlights how reading leads to the articulation of ideological positions, and hence directly to action. James Secord's Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of 'Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation' (Chicago, forthcoming) tells the tale of a remarkable book that threw the Victorian world into turmoil. Secord's work promises to transform how we see the world of mid-Victorian science."

Kathleen E. Welch, professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and author of Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy (MIT, 1999).

"In Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet With Awareness (Yale, forthcoming), Laura J. Gurak analyzes the Internet's four main functional components: speed, reach, anonymity, and interactivity. She uses examples from a number of Web sites to demonstrate how readers now step 'through the screen.' Another important book on the history of reading, Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede's Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing (Southern Illinois, 1990), predated—and in fact predicted—much of the collaborative reading and writing that now occurs in cyberspace."

John Palattella

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