A Timeless Reader

While it seems that in his text “Procuring Books and Consuming Text: The Reading Experience of a Sheffield Apprentice”, Colclough looks to highlight and explore the specific reading choices of one man (15 year old Joseph Hunter), I can’t help but notice the parallels between a reader of 1798 and the present. This is actually the motif I found myself most critically focusing on through the duration of my reading. Hunter’s life is undoubtedly different than mine (for the sake of this post I am using myself as an ‘archetype’ for a modern reader, even if I might not be completely representative). His world was smaller, his resources fewer, and his contacts arguably less progressive. While these are issues of a more social nature, they all apply to the sphere of reading. Our worlds were/are different, and our lives unique to time, however, the similarities between our approaches to reading are incredibly related.

The most obvious parallel I found was that of book selection. Hunter’s books were selected from his environment–local shops, libraries, friends, and families. When selecting from libraries Hunter was presented with a limited option of choices. “Periodicals stimulated Hunter’s desire to see a particular text or to read a particular author,” however, texts had to be nominated and then voted on in order to be added to the collection of a library (33). For Hunter, access to books was limited in a similar way to a modern reader. While I have access to many more books than Hunter (a process aided by online shopping), I am still restricted to a certain degree. Similarly, like Hunter, bestseller lists and prizes like the Pulitzer (even the Academy for other areas of popular culture-ie. awards season) often dictate which texts become available to a wide audience of readers. Even in terms of genre, there are striking similarities between choice and accessibility. Colclough argues that, for Hunter, “by far the greatest number of new texts purchased by Evans and Hunter were periodicals and newspapers” (25). While periodicals and newspapers have transformed into avenues like blogs, online periodicals/newspapers, and other forms of social media, modern readers nonetheless consume a vast number of these daily news sources. Again, as with the selection of texts, the consumption of daily news demonstrates similarities between Hunter and myself. While the texts themselves may have changed, reading trends seems to be somewhat timeless. 

I also noticed many parallels that dealt with the idea of the ‘reader’.

  • First, Colclough’s study of Hunter’s diaries indicates that Hunter was “conscious of his own different from the majority of readers” (34). Like Hunter, I as a reader often find myself in relation to the community of readers I have aligned myself with (a comparison magnified by the expedient nature of modern communication).
  • Second, the diaries suggest that “the review had some influence over the war in which the Fragments were interpreted,” ie. that one text influences another (35). Like Hunter, when choosing books I often allow my past reads to influence future choices and lit. interpretations.
  • Third, the diaries note that “Hunter’s reading experience provides evidence that he used travel lit. in ways far different than… expected” (37). Like Hunter, I often read journals for pleasure, novels for content–the fluidity of genre is continuously changing (as is the creation of new genres affecting the act of reading).
  • And fourth, the diaries stress the collection of notes taken from borrowed (and often expensive) texts (38-39). Like Hunter, I take notes when reading, often preparing for the “interrogative reading practice and the desire to reread” after a book has been returned (39).

These are just a few examples of parallels I found between Hunter and myself as readers, and I believe that many others poignant examples exist.

Even the act of keeping this diary is oddly similar to the data collection for our first essay–”Hunter recorded the date on which he acquired a text; the library, individual, or shop from which it was borrowed or bought…” (22). Though hundreds of years have passed, the credentials we are using to evaluate our collections strongly echo those implemented by Hunter. It seems, that while our world may change, the fundamental aspect of ‘reader’ will remain the same. It’s a pretty cool concept. 

However, I am left wondering two things. First, is this connection specific to Hunter? Colclough does note that the evidence found in Hunter’s diaries only give insight into his “specific reading community” (39). Would these parallels to a modern reader exist for a different reader within a different community? And second, are the parallels drawn here specific to the concerns of a book historian? In removing the personal attributes of reader (intent, interpretation, ect.) in exchange for focus on the ‘material text’, book historian effectively eliminate many issues of time, space, and environment. These are the qualities that I believe most directly threaten the parallels I have found. I’d like to believe that both questions drawn here are inconsequential, but as of now my conjectures cannot be sure. I am curious to see what others think!


3 thoughts on “A Timeless Reader

  1. You ask some great questions here, none of which I presume to know the answer to. Based off of what we’ve been studying about what book historians target as their sources of information, I am inclined to believe that researchers who have studied Hunter’s diary have an inkling that it does in fact give insight to more than just Hunter’s small community. Otherwise, why would it be deemed important by them? After a bit of thought on the topic and the utilization of what very little knowledge I have on the subject of book history, this is what I resolved would be my answer. However, it only serves to create more doubt in my mind as to how trusting we should be towards book historians to steer us in the right direction.

    • I’m curious about your skepticism toward book historians.

      Colclough himself, for example, makes clear how un-representative Hunter is (given his later life), even as Colclough uses Hunter to illustrate something about how people read and borrowed books in late 18th-century England. All history is partial; yet, even one really good set of data on one person can provide insight that we cannot have without that data. It strikes me that there is always a tension between the general and the particular and that holding that tension–not claiming more than the evidence can support, while allowing the data to speak in all its richness–is one of the great skills of historical interpretation and writing.

  2. I’d have to agree with Brie, that there has to be more insight gained from Hunter’s diary about his community, or why would book historians be interested in his diary? However, as was mentioned in class today, Hunter was an exception to much of what society did at the time. He recorded everything he read, borrowed, etc, who he got texts from, how long it took him to read them. These details do reveal very interesting facts about Hunter, as we saw from the reading, but not too much about the whole community, just a very specific one. I’m sure the parallels you draw would be similar to other groups at that time, most likely smaller communities of people like ones Hunter was a part of. In moving outside that community, the parallels would likely start to change, which would possibly be something of interest to book historians.

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