Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Five notable books on the history of reading

Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University. Her books include The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel and the edited volume Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.

Her latest book is How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain.

One of her top books on the history of reading she discussed with Jane Rudloff at The Browser:
Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway

Reading habits may have changed down the years, but one stereotype remains – that women enjoy romance books. What does your first author Janice Radway have to say on the subject?

Her book launched a revolution when it appeared in 1984, because her feminist argument took its case study from a kind of reading that both literary critics and feminist activists despised. Academics and activists had disagreements of their own, but the one thing that they would have agreed on was that romance novels churned out by Harlequin or Mills and Boon were beneath any serious person’s notice.

Yet this is an academic book, so why did Radway think romance novels were worth studying?

Radway’s innovation was that, rather than analysing the language of romance novels as most scholars would have done, she started by looking at the language of their readers – the way the women who read these books talked about them. This is essentially an ethnographic study. Radway interviewed a large swath of women who were self-identified romance readers from the Midwest of America. The surprising thing that emerged from these interviews, which Radway herself would probably not have predicted, was that even though the content of these romances was the furthest thing in the world from feminism, nonetheless the way in which readers used these romances could actually be seen as a feminist act.

How so?

Even though the novels picture women being ravished by tall, dark, handsome and rich strangers, what the readers whom Radway interviewed say over and over again is that “when I’m reading the book my husband and children know not to bother me”. Though the heroines are powerless, reading their stories enabled women to carve out personal space and time for themselves, almost in the same way in which if you are riding the subway in the morning you unfurl a newspaper to keep other people from meeting your eye. Reading is one of the things that women saw as for themselves in a life that otherwise involved taking care of others.

What I love about the method of this book is that it shows how different a book can appear depending on whether you are analysing its content or the people who read it. Even ordinary readers can be quite active in deciding what to make of the text that they read. Everyone thought these housewives were passive dupes of the patriarchy, but Radway showed them twisting romance novels to suit their own purposes.

There has been a rise in people reading romance due to the popularity of the Kindle, which means they can read them in a public space without people seeing the cover. Is that something you have come across as well?

The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has been a hit partly because you can buy it on your Kindle rather than slinking in to your local pornography shop. That said, e-readers [and new technology] work in both directions – on the one hand they mean you can read discreetly and anonymously, without displaying to everyone else on the subway car what your literary taste is, but on the other hand if you go on Facebook you can see exactly what your friends are reading. So you could compare e-readers [and new technology] either to a brown paper wrapper or a digital coffee table, the self-presentation that people want to display to the world.
Read about another book Price tagged at The Browser.

The Page 99 Test: How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain.

--Marshal Zeringue