The sociology of literature and looking for data and insights in the margins of books

As a big reader, I was interested to see this review of research built on data about readers left behind in books:

Price’s work perches at the leading edge of a growing body of investigations into the history of reading. The field draws from many others, including book history and bibliography, literary criticism and social history, and communication studies. It looks backward to the pre-Gutenberg era, back to the clay tablets and scrolls of ancient civilizations, and forward to current debates about how technology is changing the way we read. Although much of the relevant research has centered on Anglo-American culture of the last three or four centuries, the field has expanded its purview, as scholars uncover the hidden reading histories of cultures many used to dismiss as mostly oral.

It’s a tricky business. A bibliographer works with hard physical evidence—a manuscript, a printed book, a copy of the Times of London. A scholar seeking to pin down the readers of the past often has to read between the lines. Marginalia can be a gold mine of information about a book’s owners and readers, but it’s rare. “Most of the time, most readers historically didn’t, and still don’t, write in their books,” Price explains.

But even a book’s apparent lack of use can be read as evidence. “The John F. Kennedy Library here in Boston owns a copy of Ulysses whose pages—other than a few at the very beginning and very end—are completely uncut,” she says. “This tells us something about the owner of the copy—who happens to be Ernest Hemingway.”…

Since Reading the Romance, the ethnography of reading has taken off among scholars. Radway points to Forgotten Readers, Elizabeth McHenry’s study of African-American literary societies, Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing With Scissors, about scrapbooking, and David Henkin’s City Reading, about signage in the urban environment, as strong examples. “People have become very creative about trying to figure out how groups of readers interact with the text as it’s embodied in various forms,” she says.

I have wondered in recent years why more sociologists don’t take up the subject of reading. It seems crucial for understanding the development of modern societies as information moved from a highly regulated environment to a diffuse distribution through books, newspapers, and other printed materials.

I’ve enjoyed the work of sociologist Wendy Griswold who studies reading. I’ve used a few of her pieces in class. Here are some of her fascinating works in the “sociology of literature” that I recommend:

1. Bearing Witness published in 2000. Griswold examines the reading culture in Nigeria and why novels, a common genre in Western society, aren’t prevalent in Nigeria. The short version of the story: it takes a lot of work for a society to be at a level where novels can be easily produced and read.

2. “American Character and the American Novel: An Expansion of Reflection Theory in the Sociology of Literature.” American Journal of Sociology 86(4), 1981. Griswold compares American and European novels in the late 1800s and early 1900s and finds the differences in their content is due more to copyright law than “national characters.”

3. With Terry McDonnell and Nathan Wright. “Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century.” Annual Review of Sociology 31, 2005. Here is the abstract:

Sociological research on reading, which formerly focused on literacy, now conceptualizes reading as a social practice. This review examines the current state of knowledge on (a) who reads, i.e., the demographic characteristics of readers; (b) how they read, i.e., reading as a form of social practice; (c) how reading relates to electronic media, especially television and the Internet; and (d) the future of reading. We conclude that a reading class is emerging, restricted in size but disproportionate in influence, and that the Internet is facilitating this development.

Some fascinating stuff about the social forces influencing reading in today’s world.

4. With Nathan Wright. “Wired and Well Read.” In Society Online: The Internet in Context, 2004. If I remember correctly, Griswold and Wright argue the Internet doesn’t compete with reading; rather it enhances reading as those who read before the Internet use the Internet to read more.

One thought on “The sociology of literature and looking for data and insights in the margins of books

  1. Pingback: A society that develops deep readers | Legally Sociable

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