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Locating the Reader, or What do we do with the Man in the Hat?
Methodological Perspectives and Evidence from the Reading Experience
Database, 1450-1945 (RED)
Dr. Shafquat Towheed, Open University, London, UK

Date: Thursday, 21 October 2010
Time: 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Location:  Rowe 1020

Lecture Abstract

Grappling with the disaggregated evidence of individual readers throughout
the centuries, historians of reading have often divided their attention
between broad text or period based studies, or those which are
reader-centred, focussed and highly contingent. Indeed, there have
traditionally been two opposing approaches to telling the history of
reading: the macro-analytical, and the micro-analytical. The impossibility
that any individual could read even a small proportion of the cumulative
human output of books implicitly urges us to engage with the broader issue
of collecting the quantitative, statistical evidence of reading, a
methodology that allows us to examine broader trends in reading practices,
and make sense of the mind-boggling weight of extant titles and their
possible readers. While an individual reader's engagement can tell us little
about the broader trends and patterns of how a particular text was consumed,
collating a range of quantifiable data, such as that offered by print runs,
library circulation records, literacy figures, sale prices, average incomes,
distribution networks, and advertising, can accurately reconstruct the
environment for reading in a particular period and territory. Consciously a
methodologically inclusive project, the Reading Experience Database (RED)
has welcomed both approaches with equal enthusiasm. RED gathers the evidence
of reading of British readers (and visitors to Britain) between 1450 and
1945. It does so while carefully defining the type and accuracy of the data
it records, as well as making sure a wide variety of sources can be
consulted and harvested for evidence of reading. RED now has some 30,000
entries, the majority of them in the period from 1800-1945, an era which
coincides with the establishment of mass literacy in Britain.

This talk will offer a brief exploration of future directions and
possibilities for further research collaboration for RED, a question
heightened by the fact that there are four international partner programmes
being established, including one in Canada. If quantitative analysis
requires a critical mass to be accumulated by a database before it can
generate any meaningful trend data, then the implications for a project such
as RED are obvious: we must expand the volume of stored data many times. But
when is enough data really sufficient to be representative across a long
historical period? How long can we wait before trying to answer key
questions in the history of reading, such as whether a Leserevolution really
took place in the late-eighteenth century? And is representativeness nothing
more than a convenient fiction? The detailed qualitative analysis of the
close reading recorded in dairies, marginalia, manuscript material and
correspondence often provides the greatest density of data in the history of
reading, however anomalous the reader might be. Indeed, despite dozens of
claims for exemplary, outstanding, remarkable, or brilliantly
self-succifient readers, historians of reading have continued to draw upon
these rare individuals who kept a detailed record of their reading.  Perhaps
the only satisfactory answer is to do both: to delve deep into the archive,
but also to sweep broadly across the centuries.

Speaker Information

http://sim.management.dal.ca/Images/Continuing_Education/IM_Public_Lectures/
Shaf%20Towheed.jpgEducated at the universities of London and Cambridge, Dr.
Shafquat Towheed is Lecturer in English at The Open University, where he is
also Project Supervisor and Co-Investigator on The Reading Experience
Database, 1450-1945 (RED) project, http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/. He is
the editor of The Correspondence of Edith Wharton and Macmillan, 1901-1930
(Palgrave, 2007), of New Readings in the Literature of British India,
c.1780-1947 (Idibem Verlag, 2007), and of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of
Four (Broadview, 2010). He is co-editor of Publishing in the First World
War: Essays in Book History (Palgrave, 2007), The History of Reading
(Routledge, 2010) in the Routledge 'Readers in Literature' series, and The
History of Reading, Vol.1: International Perspectives, c.1500-1990, and The
History of Reading, Vol.3: Methods, Strategies, Tactics (both forthcoming
from Palgrave in 2011). He writes widely on late nineteenth and early
twentieth-century British and American literature.


This event is co-sponsored by Dalhousie, Saint Mary's, and 
Mount Saint Vincent Universities
 


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