Public Lecture

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 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, 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