Book of the week: Regionalism and the Reading Class

Tara Brabazon acclaims a monograph of merit

September 11, 2008

Certain books deserve a wide audience and a deep impact on scholarship. They offer an argument that challenges and connects seemingly disparate disciplines. Wendy Griswold's Regionalism and the Reading Class is a monograph of this quality. She asks provocative questions of the humanities while aligning technological change, globalisation, regionalism and reading. The book is provocative and powerful - she develops a convincing critique of "the conventional wisdom about contemporary culture".

Griswold enacts three fascinating projects, even though one would have been sufficient to create a fine book. Firstly, she establishes a new theory of regionalism. Secondly, she configures a model of "the reading class". Finally - and this was the knight's move of her research - she demonstrates how regionalism and the reading class are linked. She shows how supposedly "globalising" digitised technologies increase the awareness and currency of regionalism.

In the 21st century, regionality is the new nationalism and chat about slow food replaces discussion of concrete policies for the redistribution of wealth. It is a simple but significant question to explore how an understanding of place operates in and through globalisation. But implicated in this inquiry is the act of reading. Through the confusions of consumerism with democracy, Griswold argues that "a reading class, habitual readers of print with a distinct demographic profile, has emerged from the general public". Although small in size, this "class" extends a pervasive cultural influence.

The lasting impact of this monograph will be the return of history and context to the ideology of "crisis" that encircles debates about both literacy and information technology. Griswold unsettles the relationship between literacy and modernisation, exploring the production and distribution of books as material objects and the question of access to written materials. In tracing the self-reporting of reading via Gallup polls conducted in the US through the first decade of the 21st century, she finds not only an increasing desire to read, but a mismatch between this aspiration and the actuality. While confirming earlier findings that approximately 10-15 per cent of the population is composed of "avid readers" who consume the bulk of books, magazines and newspapers, she believes that in a supposedly wired age, "it appears that it is the more casual reading by occasional readers, not the extensive reading by avid readers, that is atrophying".

The internet and digital media have not been the "cause" of this decline. Because both wide reading of books and heavy internet use require education, money, time and literacy, they have been mutually supportive. Heavy internet users are also heavy readers. Instead, Griswold probes the effects of another medium: "the more people watch TV the less they read". Cultural omnivores read, listen to music, visit museums and participate in sport and leisure. They do more of everything, except watch television.

Griswold demonstrates how this globalised and electronic culture is used to create, invent and summon theories of place specificity. Through reading, regionalism is invented, constructed and rediscovered. The paradox captured through this book is that educated and mobile people are the most likely to focus both attention and care in grounding their identity and cultural allegiances. Indeed, the "making" of places connects both regionalism and reading, building consciousness and belonging. While the electronic media supposedly disconnect identity and physical place, Griswold confirms that although "the local" is threatened, "the regional" is innovating, challenging and transforming. Literature clusters writers and offers institutional support to critics, bookshops, teachers and reviewers.

This regional literary aesthetic is nostalgic, based in a rural or small-town setting, featuring working-class and rustic characters inhabiting a vividly described landscape with unusual flora and fauna. The plots are driven by conflicts between insiders and outsiders, and configure the past as a simpler and more pleasant time. The irony is that the reading class is drawn to regionalism to "escape from their metropolitan world".

There is a delicate touch to "the imaginary" and "the invisible" landscape in Regionalism and the Reading Class. The impact of Benedict Anderson is pervasive, as Griswold realises that mapping the regional "requires words ... to extend beyond the strictly local". Place culture necessitates print. But a reading class is required to initiate this movement of ideas and location.

Confirming that reading for entertainment in a majority of the population is historically rare, Griswold believes that "the new century may resemble earlier eras when a fundamental social divide involved whether people read". She implies that such a division will increase the prestige given to both readers and reading. It was once an elite practice and is again returning to exclusivity. The period from the mid-19th to mid-20th century of working-class and middle-class readers was described by Griswold as "exceptional". The apparatus for reading remains enormous, including libraries, online retailers, reading groups, literary festivals and book-of-the-month clubs. Despite this infrastructure, however, the "reading culture" - rather than a "reading class" - is retracting.

Much research will follow Griswold's remarkable book. Further attention is required to teach us how the histories of literacy, the book and reading align to reveal the sociology of textual movement through media platforms. As casual reading atrophies and the "reading class" become even more important to publishing industries, we will need to understand the increasing split between formal and intentional reading and accidental movements through a textual world.

In an environment of campaigns for the book, the 2008 National Year of Reading initiative and televised book clubs, researchers must explore the space between the celebration of reading and the reduction in the number of people who actually read. Griswold asks "how can books be both ignored and sacred?" Answering this question is a key problem for many spheres of the humanities. The diverse studies enacted by Griswold, comparing reading cultures and regionalism in the United States, Italy and Norway, provide the foundation and framework for this research.

Perhaps most powerfully, Griswold offers a way to manage two seemingly disparate ideas: "Reading is social. It always has been" and "Reading is an elite practice. It almost always has been." Her book remains an affirmation of the many ways in which reading matters as a source for information, a platform to discuss complex ideas, a conferment of prestige and a way to construct a quiet space and time for privacy, reflection and leisure.

Some monographs not only extend particular disciplines but add to knowledge through imagination and innovative interdisciplinary relationships. Such books have particular characteristics. They are expansive, punchy, provocative and slightly disturbing. Great scholars such as Anderson, Edward Said and Homi Bhabha shattered assumptions about language, nation and race through deep archival research and a passionate political agenda to improve the blend between knowledge and justice.

Regionalism and the Reading Class deserves the influence and impact of Anderson's Imagined Communities. It should transform geography, media studies, library and information management, internet studies, history and popular cultural studies. It is a reminder of the need to make connections and remember the particular, the different and the regional.

THE AUTHOR

Wendy Griswold is the Bergen Evans professor of the humanities at Northwestern University, Illinois, and professor II in sociology and human geography at the University of Oslo.

After focusing on English for her BA and MA, she took a brief sabbatical from academic life before going on to complete an MA and a PhD in sociology. A specialist in regional cultures, she has authored eight books on the subject. She is researching reading and online practices in Nigeria and exploring the Federal Writers' Project during the New Deal. She holds a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2008-09.

She credits her home state of Maine for teaching her about regional cultures. She describes the area as "a small state with more writers and a more acute consciousness of place than just about anywhere else".

Regionalism and the Reading Class

By Wendy Griswold

University of Chicago Press

208pp, £15.00

ISBN 9780226309224

Published 18 July 2008

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