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.
Ernest Hilbert is a poet and rare book dealer.
By Abigail Williams
Yale University Press. 368 pp. $40