Notes on Chartier, "Labourers and Voyagers" BHR (87)

Image of reading:

De Certeau on reading (as poaching), as travelling, “despoiling the wealth of Egypt,” etc. (87). Extensive reading? Settlers vs. nomads...

As if reading left a waste in its rear. And that reading keeps nothing, or very little – counter examples, especially from earlier periods of reading (intensive?), such as readers’ responses to Rousseau’s novel. Cf. also marginalia (such as Coleridge), or as many used books show.

No difference between reader's meaning and that of author, etc.? No -- indeterminacy of reading; reading as interaction, transaction (87). Vs. no gap between meaning and interpretation (cf. Fish). (Cf. Darnton 20-21)

More De Certeau: a readable space / an actualization; i.e. potential range of meanings vs. an actual reading; that “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” (cited 87).

Cf. Iser. No account taken here of stylistic and narrative properties of the literary text that may constrain and shape reading. “Changes along with them” – in relation to what extratextual reference?

dimensions of argument: retain vs. expend; constraint vs. indeterminacy; author-driven vs. reader-driven

|| discuss: image of reading so far -- how acceptable? ||


Historical materialism:

Examines material form of book, and circumstances that influence how it was read (88).

The three parts of reading study: 1) analysis of structure of texts; 2) the history of books; and 3) the study of reading practices. (88) Chartier’s own question, how did increases in reading matter transform sociability, forms of thought, etc., in the ancien regime (88).

To reconstruct the world of the text in its encounter with the world of the reader (88). Text not an abstraction: materialist aspect, so that “forms produce meaning” and text means differently “when the mechanisms that make it available to interpretation change” (e.g., Congreve, 91). To contrast:

  1. reading competencies, i.e., literate and illiterate
  2. norms and conventions of reading and modes of interpretation
  3. expectations and diverse interests of different groups of readers (88).

On mystical readers: spiritual disciplines of reading, 16-17C

Reader has emerged from the history of the book; but still as confined by codes and conventions. Still governed by materiality of book (McKenzie) (89).

Dissatisfaction with “old” book history: study of inventories, library catalogues, etc. Locating social differences in how books were read [cf. Bourdieu on class]. Need to challenge this approach (89).

On not premising the study of reading on class, as though this determined reading patterns. Start rather with “the social areas in which each corpus of texts and each genre of printed matter circulates." Problems enumerated. Need conception of the social; not just unequal distributions; to note how texts take on meaning for different readers. (90)

1st modification. Same texts taken up by readers in different classes (90).

2nd modification. To reconstruct modes of access to texts. How reading brings the body into play. Need to study forms of reading that have now disappeared, such as the practice of reading aloud, e.g., in a family (90). Oral carryover in reading practices: reading as vocalization (90).

3rd modification. Materialist insistence: reader influenced by form in which book reaches him or her (90-91). Authors write texts; publishers, etc., create books: "Authors do not write books" (91). [and cf. Darnton's circle, 12]

Critique of Iser, ignoring material form in which reader takes up a book (91). Example: McKenzie on Congreve (91). Invention of paragraphing (91). Locke on Bible (91-2); sects that dismember verses for their own purposes (92). Bibliothéque Bleue: popular books, often drawn from learned sources (92). Publisher’s expectations about how readers would read (92). Paratext: indicating how to read, or as sites of memory (92).

|| discuss: other (modern?) examples of material change: what difference does it make? ||

History of reading practices:

Shakespeare played in USA as popular theatre, until separated as “legitimate” and “popular.” Cultural matrix shapes readings. (93).

Increase in number of books: that this tended to bring into being divisions between classes of readers. But “why did certain texts lend themselves better than others to these continuing and recurrent uses?” (i.e., become canonical). (93).

How modes of reading change: need for a history of reading practices. That new readers appear and take up reading differently from predecessors (93-4). Oppositions:

  1. Silent vs. oral reading. De Certeau – withdrawal of the body in silent reading (94). – or, retreat to greater interiority?
  2. Shift from intensive to extensive reading;
  3. Intimacy vs. collective reading (94).

Technological, formal, and cultural transformations since the Middle Ages:

  1. changes in techniques of reproduction of book (scribal to print)
  2. change in form of book: size, layout
  3. reading abilities and reading modes (94)

How to measure reading in earlier societies? Not necessarily correlated with ability to sign, book ownership, or exposure to reading. Also, illiterate exposed to print in public spaces (such as churches) (95).

Literacy in service of codes of behaviour: in church, conduct books (95).

Censorship of books, eliminating all that threatened order; power of 18th C institutions vs. de Certeau's readerly freedom (95-6). [example of Rigaud in Montpellier importing Voltaire: other examples?]

Study of ephemera, e.g., pamphlets, posters, etc., representations of ways of reading -- recover reading practices. Contrast of bourgeois and aristocratic reading -- reverse standard presuppositions. To glimpse experiences of reading: a memory, an emotion (96).

That reading is inventive, never totally constrained; and at the same time follows rules, models (reflecting Fish’s interpretive community) (96).


How well does this map of issues, changes, etc., coincide with views of Darnton, De Certeau?

What is the most striking change in reading from the historical period then (17-18C) to now? What motivated the change?

How would you attempt to measure and evaluate evidence of reading prior to the 19th C?

What is the most significant material change in the medium of reading, and what effects are attributable to it?

When Chartier refers to norms and conventions of reading (e.g., p. 88) what do you suppose he has in mind?

How helpful are Chartier's references to class when thinking about who was reading what?

Does Chartier have a reception theory in your view?

Other questions ... ?

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Document created September 20th 2009 / Updated January 31st 2012