How books left the li­brary and be­came a group ac­tiv­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY ERNEST HIL­BERT

We tend to imag­ine read­ers, an in­creas­ingly un­com­mon breed, as si­lent and usu­ally soli­tary be­ings, but they have not al­ways been so. As Abi­gail Wil­liams tells us in “The So­cial Life of Books,” 18th-cen­tury Eng­land was a hey­day of com­mu­nal read­ing. Books were read aloud, a pas­time that grew enor­mously in pop­u­lar­ity along­side rising lit­er­acy rates, the birth of com­mer­cial pub­lish­ing and the emer­gence of the pro­fes­sional writer.

Wil­liams, who teaches at Ox­ford Univer­sity, ex­plains that from the van­tage of our own age, sat­u­rated as it is with en­ter­tain­ment and in­for­ma­tion, “it is hard to imag­ine the ex­cite­ment felt by pre­vi­ous read­ers at the pos­si­bil­ity of gain­ing ac­cess to a new book.” No longer did one re­quire “for­mal and clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion, or the re­sources of a vast li­brary” to be a reader.

In the pages of his magazine, the Spec­ta­tor, Joseph Ad­di­son com­manded that cul­ture come “out of Clos­ets and Li­braries, Schools and Col­leges, to dwell in Clubs and Assem­blies, at Tea-Ta­bles, and in Cof­fee-Houses,” and it did. Read­ing aloud made sense for many rea­sons. Can­dles were ex­pen­sive, as were books. Be­fore modern oph­thal­mol­ogy, those with poor eye­sight could only ex­pe­ri­ence a book if it were read to them. What had re­mained in ear­lier cen­turies the do­main of schol­ars in dusty car­rels came to re­sem­ble some­thing as fa­mil­iar to us as fam­i­lies gath­ered around pi­anos or tele­vi­sions in later ages.

Wil­liams’s im­pres­sive re­search is pre­sented with a light touch through­out, bring­ing the reader into the amus­ing daily lives of English trades­men, work­ers, mer­chants, cler­gy­men, as well as their wives and daugh­ters. She ex­plains how read­ing be­came some­thing of a “spec­ta­tor sport.” Of course, as with any type of per­for­mance, one had to be prop­erly pre­pared, and this led to a surge of in­struc­tional man­u­als, fur­ther fu­el­ing what Wil­liams des­ig­nates “the great age of elo­cu­tion,” in which Bri­tons of all back­grounds were gripped with “a near ob­ses­sion with learn­ing to read out loud.” Trades­men formed what were rather me­morably known as “spout­ing clubs” for as­pir­ing pub­lic speak­ers, re­ly­ing on such hand­books as “The New Spouter’s Com­pan­ion” and “The Sen­ti­men­tal Spouter.” Women, who very of­ten found them­selves omit­ted from pub­lic per­for­mances, quickly took to them in the home, en­ter­tain­ing friends and fam­ily with tales and po­ems while they knit­ted or oth­er­wise bus­ied them­selves around the hearth.

Guide­books went so far as to ad­vise the cor­rect wrin­kling of the brow to dis­play “the emo­tion of hor­ror,” as in Charles Le Brun’s il­lus­trated “Heads,” rep­re­sent­ing the var­i­ous pas­sions of the soul. Oth­ers, like Joshua Steele’s “Proso­dia Ra­tion­alis,” hoped to cre­ate a mu­si­cal no­ta­tion for elo­cu­tion, mark­ing the or­a­tory as if it were to be played on an in­stru­ment. As Wil­liams points out, “read­ing well in the eigh­teenth cen­tury was harder than it sounded.”

In true Bri­tish fash­ion, such earnest­ness soon met with hu­mor­ous de­fla­tions, such as a par­ody by Alexan­der Stevens, whose ti­tle reads in part “The Ques­tion, in which Spec­i­mens of true and false Elo­quence will be given by the Ros­tra­tor, is How far the Parabola of a Comet af­fects the Veg­e­ta­tion of a Cu­cum­ber,” a ti­tle hardly more out­ra­geous than the era’s ma­nia for per­fect ar­tic­u­la­tion.

The en­large­ment of cul­ture ar­rived along with an open­ing up of ar­chi­tec­tural spa­ces. The emerg­ing mer­chant class moved into larger homes, and those homes re­quired li­braries, set­ting in mo­tion a brisk trade in book-re­lated fur­ni­ture, in­clud­ing a dizzy­ing as­sort­ment of ladies’ book­cases, ped­i­ment book­cases, “em­bat­tled” book­cases, gothic book­cases, not to men­tion li­brary ta­bles and other de­vices for the dis­play of books. A house with a li­brary of any size very of­ten served not only a fam­ily but an en­tire vil­lage.

At the same time, si­lent read­ing was no longer re­stricted to par­lors and stud­ies. Wil­liams tells of a trav­el­ing stone­ma­son who “taught his horse the route of his jour­neys, and from then on, read while he trav­eled,” and of ladies read­ing while hav­ing their hair done, such that many a book was left with “bind­ing cracked by quan­ti­ties of pow­der and po­ma­tum be­tween the leaves.” Then, as now, newly portable vol­umes al­lowed trav­el­ers to while away hours, just as “modern trav­ellers would take a novel, an iPod, or an iPad as a time-killer.”

Wil­liams re­gales us with sto­ries of ser­vants sneak­ing mas­ters’ books, of Thomas Bowdler san­i­tiz­ing — or “bowd­ler­iz­ing” — Shake­speare for fam­i­lies, New­ton’s mag­is­te­rial “Prin­cipia” re­pub­lished with­out all the off-putting math and the rage for lit­er­ary mer­chan­dise in­spired, in one case, by Sa­muel Richard­son’s 1740 novel, “Pamela,” in­clud­ing fans, play­ing cards, tea cups, wax­works and cream­ers. We also learn that read­ers of­ten read chap­ters out of or­der or pre­ferred only high­lights, copy­ing out scenes or stan­zas of height­ened emo­tion into shared com­mon­place books, which Wil­liams com­pares to the cre­ation of dig­i­tal playlists to­day.

“The So­cial Life of Books” in­vites us to think about an era when in­creased leisure time worked with a wide­spread yearn­ing for knowl­edge to change the act of read­ing. Wil­liams’s charm­ing pageant of anec­dotes, as re­vealed in di­aries, let­ters and margina­lia, con­jures a world strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from our own but sur­pris­ingly sim­i­lar in many ways, a time when read­ing was on the rise and whole worlds sprang up around it.

THE SO­CIAL LIFE OF BOOKS Read­ing To­gether in the Eigh­teen­thCen­tury Home By Abi­gail Wil­liams Yale Univer­sity Press. 368 pp. $40

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