Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading and Not Reading

I love John Sayles' A Moment in the
 for many reasons.

Nice piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle Review last week about the "growing body of investigations into the history of reading." For reception scholars, such growth may seem old news, but the piece, prompted by Leah Price's How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, separates historical research on reading from more established research on the history of the book and reception theory, linking it to current debates on reading and technology and transnationalism. Howard offers a too-brief history of the field (though it name-drops my own favorites--Janice Radway, Robert Darnton, and Jonathan Rose), but her discussion of research methods and problems is quite good, ranging from the rare joys of marginalia to new efforts to aggregate historical evidence, such as the Reading Experience Database (RED).

Price offers the best line, actually: "'The history of reading,' Price says, 'really has to encompass the history of not reading.'" Absolutely true, that. (I am reminded of my own students' love for "art books," as well as this amusing review of Ronald Reagan's memoir). But we still haven't figured out how to talk about "reading" in its broadest sense without some awkwardness. In my own work on music, I have used the term "audiencing," which encompasses moments of encounter, as well as everything else that goes into one's attention to music: various kinds of meaning-making around performances and works, social practices of fans, and the diverse uses of music in daily life. Michael Broyles and other recent reviewers of Listening and Longing have rightly called me out on the clunkiness of the term, but I'm not sure how else to capture all that we do with music. Until our shared understanding of "reading" (or "listening" or "viewing") moves away from the narrow act of sensorily encountering a text, we are stuck with this sort of awkward explanation.

With a little pedantry, I'm sure that we can shift the tide! Try this line at your next party: "I just read the best book! Which, of course, included my enjoying the story, posting about it on Facebook, inadvertently repeating its phrasing in conversation, doodling an illustration of one of the characters while talking on phone, trying to re-flatten the cover after I dropped it, using it to hide a gift certificate I bought for my sister's birthday, and proudly displaying it on the shelf where I keep Absalom, Absalom! and Finnegan's Wake."

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