Wittman, Reinhard. "Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?" A History of Reading in the West. Eds. Cavallo, Guglielmo and Roger Chartier. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 284-312.
[See also this overview and critique, prepared by students in Engl 567/CompLit 610]
Transformation in reading
1790s: witnesses to a widespread epidemic of reading, which nobody denied: worry over; -- in the street, at meals, in the bath, etc., in France, Germany (284-5). Conceived as a transformation of reading from intensive to extensive (285). Intensive: a small canon, repeatedly read, dominated by the Bible. Extensive: seeking fresh stimulation, private entertainment, etc. (285). Extensive became the norm (286).
The world of the reader
In Germany, liberation of bourgeoisie from authorities of Church and State, seeking autonomy, first through literature then politically (287). "Written culture and literature became the training ground for self-understanding and reasoning, while books and reading acquired a new status in the public consciousness" (287). "The printed word became the vehicle of bourgeois culture" (288).
But questions of literacy: perhaps 1.5% of population in Germany were literate in 1790s (289).
Old / new forms of reading
Before 1789 reading class comprised the elite; after 1789 it spread to all classes (290). "Unruly" reading (290). Servant class, e.g., chambermaids, already reading novels in 1780s, etc. (291). The new individualist mode of reading began in the Protestant cities of N. Germany, where "moral" magazines began to appear; followed later by Catholic cities, c. 1780 (292). Growth of female readership (292-3).
The reading mania
From 1770, emergence of "a 'sentimental' or 'empathetic' form of reading" [absorption] -- a passion that isolated the reader at the same time as demanding communication, contact with the lives behind the page (295) -- "intensive" (296). Associated first with Richardson's novels in England (Pamela 1740; Clarissa 1747-8); then Rousseau (La Nouvelle Héloïse 1761); Klopstock (Messiah 1749) and Goethe (Werther 1774). (297)
Reading patterns; withdrawal, development of imagination (298-9). Concern over escapist reading, increasingly enagaged in by all classes - critics concerned it would lead to vices that conflicted with the Protestant work ethic; even to masturbation (300-1).
Corresponding increase in book trade, organized now on market, capitalist lines; and emergence of free-lance writer, nevertheless in subjection to the bookseller (301). Statistics on book production, from Leipzig book fair, shows increase in titles from 1384 in 1775 to 3906 in 1800; and novels increased in proportion from 2.6% in 1740 to 11.7 % in 1800 (302). But also a 9-fold increase in cost of books over the period, so many readers switched to lending libraries (303). A "deluge of novels" from 1800 onwards (304); reading destroying "the autonomy of reason and the desire for emancipation" (305). Similarly, great spread of periodicals, demand for daily news (305).
Lending libraries and reading societies
Rapid growth of lending libraries and reading societies, considered equivalent to brothels by some (306-7); societies built up more comprehensive libraries, even opened rooms for exhibitions, etc. (308), and had collections that could rival many university libraries. Their independence curtailed by law around 1800 (308), leaving the more anonymous lending libraries to flourish (especially in Catholic areas, e.g., Bavaria, Austria, 310). But reading in this context emphasied sociability rather than political activism (311).
A reading revolution, self-improvement, escapism, promoted by reading; promotion of bourgeois values (311).
- That epidemic of reading caused a revolution in Europe (284). Did it?
- How did novels come to replace earlier genres of reading given moral sanctions against them? (cf. 304-5)
- Did extensive reading and the withdrawal this promoted lead to political passivism?
- Reading across class lines (302): how do ideological accounts of the role of literature square with this?
- How to relate extensive reading to development of a canon?
return to course page
Document prepared October 15th 2005