How can reading be “sociable”? And how can books have a “social life”? We only have to remember the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Caroline Bingley is trying to distract Mr Darcy from his book, to know that reading in company is one of the most unsociable things anyone can do. When Caroline selects a book only because it is the second volume of his, however, she is doing exactly what Abigail Williams claims was common practice in the 18th century: reading in a partial way, “dipping and skipping”, as she puts it, without necessarily reading multiple volumes in the right order. There was no pressure to be what Williams calls a “completist”, but there was certainly social pressure to be seen to be reading.
There is much about this book to suggest that 18th-century readers were very different from us. Reading aloud, for example, was common practice in what Williams calls “middling-sort” families, and the need to get this right spawned an industry of performance guides, equipped with marked-up passages for emphasis and, for the super-keen, the formation of “spouting clubs”, where enthusiasts could practise before a willing audience. For readers wanting useful soundbites, there were collections of excerpted texts and bon mots. The verse of the time, marked by its taste for sententious statements phrased in rhyming couplets, lent itself particularly well to the fashion for “commonplace” books, which Williams sees as “the literary equivalent of a modern playlist”.
Indeed, what she shows us is a society passionate for self-improvement without the appearance of pedantry, omnivorous in its taste for sermons, plays, jest-books and popular science, but ultimately anxious to protect the vulnerable from reading privately what could not be read aloud. Reading together, while applying censorship-as-you-go, counteracted the secret consumption of inflammatory romance.
This is a lively and richly illustrated addition to “history of the book” studies, drawing on diaries, manuscripts, novels and library records, with chapters on verse, drama, fiction, religious and scientific reading. Interestingly, Williams’ discussion shows that generic borders collapsed under this treatment, with novels sounding like plays when read aloud in different voices, and aphorisms extracted and “spouted” from all the genres that she considers.
Unlikely though it seems, the gap between Williams’ chosen period and ours gradually narrows, as she concludes that we too live in a soundbite culture of short attention spans and rapid acquisition of essential knowledge, while also wanting to share what we know. If the Kindle read on aeroplanes has replaced family groups assembled to hear a bowdlerised passage of Shakespeare, many of us belong to book clubs, or retweet quotations that have caught our fancy. It seems the solitary and silent way of reading is never the whole story. Books have a complex afterlife of onward transmission and performance, as Dickens would demonstrate in the following century, while literary festivals – a development beyond Williams’ scope – provide ample proof of the social life of books outside academia: a hopeful prospect for the future of reading, in whatever artificially packaged format it next emerges.
Valerie Sanders is professor of English and director of the graduate school at the University of Hull.
The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home
By Abigail Williams
Yale University Press, 368pp, £30.00
Published 2 August 2017