(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Roger Chartier, Director of Studies of the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, author of The Cultural Uses of Early Modern France (1987), and editor of Les Usages de l’imprime (1987,The Culture of Print, 1989), here considers the question, “How did people in Western Europe between the end of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century attempt to master the enormously increased number of texts that first the manuscript book and then print put into circulation?” The first chapter considers this question from the perspective of the reader, taking as its point of departure the observation of Chartier’s colleague Michel de Certeau that appears inThe Practice of Everyday Life (1984),

Whether it is a question of newspapers or Proust, the text has a meaning only through its readers; it changes along with them; it is ordered in accord with codes of perception that it does not control. It becomes a text only in its relation to the exteriority of the reader.

Chartier warns against traditional approaches to the study of reading, which focus on book ownership and literacy rates. Not every book purchased is read; not every book read is purchased. In Spectator 10 for March 12, 1711, Joseph Addison wrote, “My Publisher tells me, that there are already Three Thousand [copies] distributed every Day: So that . . . I may reckon about Threescore Thousand Disciples in London and Westminster,” allowing for twenty readers for each subscription. Inventories can be deceptive. To cite but one example, William Shakespeare’s will mentions no books. Similarly, literacy rates are difficult to determine, especially since for centuries reading was taught before writing. Many who had only limited schooling may have possessed at least minimal literacy without being able to sign their name, the standard indicator of literacy.

Chartier urges a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to the history of reading, an examination of the ways in which people read the same text and the ways in which the form of the book affected the way the text was read. One example that Chartier offers is the Bible. Although the Bible had been divided into chapters and verses in the thirteenth century, seventeenth century printings, with increased white spaces between divisions, affected the way readers approached the text. Chartier quotes John Locke: “Not only the Common People take the Verses usually for distinct Aphorisms, but even Men of more advanc’d Knowledge in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the Coherence and the Light that depends on it.” Locke blamed the new mode of printing for increased religious factionalism, because each sect could focus on specific verses and ignore the continuity of the text.

As format affected readers, so readers influenced format. The publishers of the Bibliotheque bleu, eighteenth century French chapbooks intended for less affluent, less literate readers, adapted texts that had appeared in a different format for a more learned audience. Not only did publishers shorten and simplify the texts, but they also added illustrations, headings, and summaries to help the less sophisticated reader. A similar example from the late twentieth century is the distinction between the Oxford Illustrated Dickens, with pictures and without notes, and the heavily annotated, larger Clarendon edition from the same publisher intended for scholars rather than lay readers.

The very act of reading has changed over the centuries. Augustine of Hippo was surprised that Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, read silently, since reading aloud, even to oneself, was the custom. Even in the nineteenth century, Victorians gathered in parlors and lecture halls to listen to readings of the popular works of the day. This public presentation of the text created a community of readers and also imposed restrictions on authors, whose texts had to be...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)