Reading is a social activity or it’s nothing

Reading Communities

BOOK REVIEW  by Marc JAHJAH  •  Published 17.04.2013  •  Updated 18.04.2013
What role does community have in reading?

Title: Reading Communities

Subhead: From Salons to Cyberspace

Author(s): DeNel REHBERG SEDO

Editor(s): Palgrave Macmillan

Release Date: 26.08.2011

Reading Communities: from Salons to Cyberspace is a broad collection of nine articles published in 2011 which explore the place of community in the activity of reading from a broad historical (from 1740 to 2009), geographical (the United States, Great Britain, and its colonies) point of view, and a wide range of materials (letters, face-to-face/Internet reading clubs etc.). It has two aims: first, to show that we never read alone We never read alone. , even when closed away in a room, and that we always call upon reading methods, behaviours and interpretation models, inherited from a group, or from a community; second, to understand what changes when a society becomes populated with well-read people. This question and this demonstration have, of course, already been looked at in many important studies; but as the director of the work shows, they appear to have only dealt with until now objects that are important, although limited in scope, specifically notebooks or annotations, letters or newspapers from which the inner world of a given reader was reconstituted (this claim to reconstitute the reader’s inner world is disputed[+] Note“Given the recent shift of attention from the writer to the reader and to the production, dissemination, and reception of texts, marginalia of all periods would appear to be potentially a goldmine for scholars. And so they are, but they are a contested goldmine. Some excellent basic bibliographic and historical work has been done, and there are a few fine case studies, most of them dealing with Medieval and Renaissance texts. The subject has stimulated intelligent theorizing. For a few famous writers, the corpus of marginalia has been the focus of a critical edition. Critics disagree, however, about the reliability of readers’ notes, and consequently about the ways in which they might legitimately be used to reconstruct either a reading environment or the mental experience of a particular reader,” H. J JACKSON, Marginalia: Reader Writing in Books, Kindle format, 2001, position 79. X [1]). The point of view looked at here is the one that comes from Robert Darnton[+] NoteRobert DARNTON, "What is the History of Books", Deadalus, 111, 1982, p. 65-83.X [2], popularised by Thomas and Nicolas Barker[+] NoteThomas R. ADAMS, Nicolas BARKER, “A New Model for the Study of the Book" in Nicolas BARKER ed., A Potencie of Life: Books in Society, London, British Library, 1993, p. 5-43.X [3] in the English-speaking world, Roger Chartier[+] NoteRoger CHARTIER, L'ordre des livres. Lecteurs, auteurs, bibliothèques en Europe entre le XIVe et XVIIIe siècle, Alinéa, 1992.X [4] or Christian Jacob[+] NoteChristian JACOB, Des Alexandries II. Les métamorphoses du lecteur, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2003.X [5] in France, for whom all phenomena that have an effect on a reader while reading must be taken into account, whether it concerns the materiality of the reading media, their economy, their distribution or their imaginations. Asking about the meaning of  "reading", "community", the "group", "society" requires us provide sufficiently varied and concrete examples of them in order to tie them down, make them dense and, finally, to deport them.

The introduction by DeNel Redberg Sedo, director of the work, quickly draws up a history of reading in society before justifying the period of history included (1740-2009). It was indeed in 18th century that women started to set up in the United States reading groups on which were built, two centuries later, 75% of American public libraries, which stemmed from this democratic ideal (women were able to become emancipated and define themselves in a common language and intellectual horizon).

The first studies on 20th century reading groups confirm this historical link between the clubs, women and education. That of Jenny Hartley[+] NoteJenny HARTLEY, Reading Groups, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.X [6], for example, showed that the public for these clubs mainly comprised middle-class women in their forties who wanted to improve their learning. Their aims and their influence on individuals (the group continues to influence us even when we are no longer in it[+] NoteMichelle Diane SISSON WINTER, The roles of reading in the lives of African American women who are members of a book club, PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, 1996.X [7]) became, however, more clearly identified as the number of studies increased. According to Elisabeth Long[+] NoteElisabeth LONG, Women and the Use of Reading in Everyday Life, University of Chicago Press, 2003.X [8], belonging to a club stemmed from the need to share which is a matter of forming an identity and solidarity between the members,  and of consciousness of one’s self and self-improvement[+] NoteLinda GIFFRIN, An Analysis of Meaning Creation through the Integration of Sociology and Literature: a Critical Ethnography of a Romance Reading Group, PhD dissertation, University of Houston, Texas, 1999.X [9], which are characterised, in some cases, by a ritualised cultural process[+] NotePatricia GREGORY, Women’s experience of Reading in St Louis Book Clubs, PhD dissertation, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, 2000.X [10]. Despite this group influence, the readers continue to be aware of the differences in their interpretation of what they are reading, measured according to the social position they hold. Mothers and librarians, for example, have the status of “literary agents”[+] NoteNorma Linda GONZALEZ, “Nancy Drew: Girls’ Literature, Women’s Reading Groups, and the Transmission of Literacy,” Journal of Literacy Research, 29, 2, p.221-251, 1997.X [11] which encourages them to read with greater care, since they hold a position of responsibility. One’s social status also influences private reading habits and vice versa: the space between private life and social life is “grafted” on (“grafted space”[+] NoteJen PECOSKIE, The Solitary, Social, and ‘Grafted Spaces’ of Pleasure Reading: Exploring Reading Practices from the Experiences of Adult, Self-Identified Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Readers and Book Club Members, PhD dissertation, University of Western Ontario, 2009.X [12]), that is to say that these two modes of reading constantly intermingle. Some nuance was however added to this positive conclusion by way of studies carried out on the more mainstream, popular, even industrial reading clubs that arose in the 1960s and were made popular in the 1990s by Oprah Winfrey[+] NoteMark HALL, “The ‘Ophrafication’ of Literacy: Reading ‘Oprah’s Book Club’”, College English, 65, 6, p. 646-667, 2003;, Cecilia FARR KONCHAR, Jaime HARKER, The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, New-York, State University of New York Press, 2008.X [13].

Thanks to the use of a large number of examples, it has been possible to express, specifically, the notion of “imagined community” popularised by Benedict Anderson[+] NoteBenedict ANDERSON, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Kindle format, 2006. X [14], which describes how belonging to a group comprising individuals takes shape, starting with rituals and postulated mental operations. Reading the newspaper every morning, for example, encourages million of readers to not only to carry out the same activity, but to imagine others doing it too. The visible act of reading, which incites readers to get together in groups, cannot by itself explain their sedimentation: a collection of actions, procedures, physical dissemination (letters, books, notes, etc.) and interpretations take part in it, and consequently put the members into highly varied spatial and temporal lines before bringing them together in a community space where community values are shared.

The first study of books is exemplary in this regard. Betty A. Schellengerg (“Reading in an Epistolary Community in Eighteenth-Century England”) examines the formation of a reading network in an epistolary community (“the Bluestocking network”) during the second half of the 18th century in Great Britain. She shows how choices, opinions on books and on authors, as well as reading methods (physical, critical) shift and become more nuanced, as each reader becomes aware of their belonging to the group. Sharing one’s reading activity may establish one’s position and social status, but it also works like an affirmation of a common base that is made possible through the stabilisation of references, which are first of all debated by each person then shared by everybody. This effervescence would not, however, have been possible without a specific logistical setup. The members of this group are located on different spacial scales, so they were formed by the collective work of the women, who were responsible for looking for new reading materials, for acquiring them and then distributing them. We may consider the Bluestocking network to be a community of readers because the group formed with texts at its centre in order to create and show the links and a number of intellectual activities (discussing, criticising, debating, etc.) that crystallise the ideas; it was by way of these ideas that each member became incorporated into a space where it was possible to commune with the others.

The members of a reading community therefore share a certain number of standpoints and “values” that have a socialising effect, to the extent that the actual business of reading can, in some instances, become subsidiary, or even merely a pretext for meeting up. But it is of course books - more than any other object - that bring about their existence, because they wield the power of intellectual attraction and social sedimentation. This is what makes governments take an interest in them and exploit them politically. Robert Snape shows in chapter 3 how a cultural scheme started up at the end of the 19th century (National Home Reading Union) managed to integrate whole groups of people in deserted areas of Australia, of Canada and South Africa, countries which then were part of the British empire, into society. The aim of the scheme was to identify the views of certain isolated people – that is to say, obtain information about them – to connect them with the national vision, which differed somewhat from that of the colonised indigenous peoples. By keeping a daily link between geographically isolated individuals and their urban family, via a normative intimate practice, the empire ensured its cohesion. There is however a tangible tension between this wish to control and the conscience of each reader caught up in political games, and whose identities were becoming increasingly complex, as the relationships between colonised nations within the empire grew weaker.

This type of relationship – which is powerful, and less caricatured than is often believed (on one side the manipulators, and on the other the manipulated) – can also be perceived in the publishing chain, in particular between publishers and reading clubs (chapter 9). If, of course, the latter are seen as targets and representative samples to test out certain books, the former consider them to them guardians of a cultural activity that direct marketing and financial aid can promote. The birth and the longevity of certain habits have to be explained in light of interactions between members and informed, codified cultural hierarchies that are influenced by marketing strategies that adapt to them, without ever being fully able to foresee them (resistance by certain members to the pressure from the group and from publishers).

The study by DeNel Rehberg Sedo (chapter 5) that analyses an online reading club shows more closely how a canon is formed. Reading clubs indeed enable the members to acquire cultural and physical capital, but they do this by way of influential members (usually experts in their field, renowned for their competences), who decide what a good or bad book is. In other words: social factors weigh on “personal tastes”, forming them, guiding them, and lay down the rules that members should follow when reading other book. But even in this case, there are negotiations between the rules and personal points of view, in particular on the Internet where the restrictions of being face to face (which, according to Goffman, defines interaction) are not there, such that shifts and greater social diversity are possible, even if the members tend to copy the face to face experience in their messages in order to recreate a norm that they know (forms of address and greeting, for example). These relationships give rise to the notion of “interpretive communities” by Stanley Fish: a reader never reads a text alone, but always operates more or less within a framework, a real or imagined group. The social usage of texts is measured against this interweaving which reveals an infrastructure of literacy and institutional determining factors.

Reading Communities: from Salons to Cyberspace therefore offers a rich path with a very large number of case studies we can use to broaden our understanding of the various participants (reader, author, publisher etc.) and of various objects (reading, books), which are situated in complex spatial, architectural and relational structures. By reading this collection, one realises notably that the term “text” may be shifted and applied to a whole range of elements: everything, in one sense, is text (individuals, groups as well as cultural schemes, such as the National Home Reading Union), weaving social, linguistic, semiotic, anthropological threads, which have the potential to be untangled. The notion of space also takes on greater substance, and is expressed by way of practices that we can think about, as expressed by Christian Jacob[+] NoteChristian JACOB, Lieux de Savoir (I): Espaces et communautés, Albin Michel, 2007.X [15] by way of terms (border, margin, centre, periphery, etc.) other than those generally used (private/public). The study of reader networks (Goodreads, Babelio, Librarything, etc.), found on the Internet (Twitter, Facebook, applications for tablets), may have made it possible to test out this interpretational hypothesis.


Translated from French by Peter Moss
  • 1. “Given the recent shift of attention from the writer to the reader and to the production, dissemination, and reception of texts, marginalia of all periods would appear to be potentially a goldmine for scholars. And so they are, but they are a contested goldmine. Some excellent basic bibliographic and historical work has been done, and there are a few fine case studies, most of them dealing with Medieval and Renaissance texts. The subject has stimulated intelligent theorizing. For a few famous writers, the corpus of marginalia has been the focus of a critical edition. Critics disagree, however, about the reliability of readers’ notes, and consequently about the ways in which they might legitimately be used to reconstruct either a reading environment or the mental experience of a particular reader,” H. J JACKSON, Marginalia: Reader Writing in Books, Kindle format, 2001, position 79.
  • 2. Robert DARNTON, "What is the History of Books", Deadalus, 111, 1982, p. 65-83.
  • 3. Thomas R. ADAMS, Nicolas BARKER, “A New Model for the Study of the Book" in Nicolas BARKER ed., A Potencie of Life: Books in Society, London, British Library, 1993, p. 5-43.
  • 4. Roger CHARTIER, L'ordre des livres. Lecteurs, auteurs, bibliothèques en Europe entre le XIVe et XVIIIe siècle, Alinéa, 1992.
  • 5. Christian JACOB, Des Alexandries II. Les métamorphoses du lecteur, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2003.
  • 6. Jenny HARTLEY, Reading Groups, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • 7. Michelle Diane SISSON WINTER, The roles of reading in the lives of African American women who are members of a book club, PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, 1996.
  • 8. Elisabeth LONG, Women and the Use of Reading in Everyday Life, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • 9. Linda GIFFRIN, An Analysis of Meaning Creation through the Integration of Sociology and Literature: a Critical Ethnography of a Romance Reading Group, PhD dissertation, University of Houston, Texas, 1999.
  • 10. Patricia GREGORY, Women’s experience of Reading in St Louis Book Clubs, PhD dissertation, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, 2000.
  • 11. Norma Linda GONZALEZ, “Nancy Drew: Girls’ Literature, Women’s Reading Groups, and the Transmission of Literacy,” Journal of Literacy Research, 29, 2, p.221-251, 1997.
  • 12. Jen PECOSKIE, The Solitary, Social, and ‘Grafted Spaces’ of Pleasure Reading: Exploring Reading Practices from the Experiences of Adult, Self-Identified Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Readers and Book Club Members, PhD dissertation, University of Western Ontario, 2009.
  • 13. Mark HALL, “The ‘Ophrafication’ of Literacy: Reading ‘Oprah’s Book Club’”, College English, 65, 6, p. 646-667, 2003;, Cecilia FARR KONCHAR, Jaime HARKER, The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah’s Book Club, New-York, State University of New York Press, 2008.
  • 14. Benedict ANDERSON, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Kindle format, 2006.
  • 15. Christian JACOB, Lieux de Savoir (I): Espaces et communautés, Albin Michel, 2007.

Book title: Reading Communities
Subhead:  From Salons to Cyberspace
Author(s): DeNel REHBERG SEDO
Editor(s): Palgrave Macmillan
Release Date: 26/08/2011
Number of pages: 232 pages

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