Communal reading and everyday life

13 04 2012

Taking an everyday journey on the London Underground in August this year, I witnessed many different types of reading; in the carriage in which I travelled, a middle-aged couple jointly consulted a London guidebook; a man next to me perused a map of the Underground; a young woman opposite studied some hand-written notes; two passengers read the newspaper; while one was engrossed in a novel. Finally, whilst observing my fellow passengers, I scanned the advertisements on the walls of the carriage. In short, I witnessed and engaged in varied kinds of reading at work on equally varied kinds of reading material.

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On the same day I took this photograph of a group sitting on a bench along the South Bank. These three Italian visitors were engaged in an act of shared reading common to any group visiting a new city: in the centre the older female holds a London guidebook so that the other two people can read it. She looks down at the text, as does the male figure to the left, presumably her partner. Meanwhile the girl on the right, presumably her daughter, looks ahead, not reading the guide, but nevertheless closely tied in with the act of reading by the other two figures. This kind of reading would almost certainly be interrupted by other activities: conversation about decisions to be made or unrelated matters, or observations of surroundings. Finally, we can imagine this kind of shared reading replicated countless times across London at every moment of the day, perhaps more numerous and visible in areas popular with tourists.

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When studying readers of the past, such shared reading must be considered alongside the traditional emphasis on readers of literature, absorbed in their books in splendid isolation, such as those seen in David Vincent’s Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: a Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (1982), which states that ‘reading is a solitary activity’ (p. 125) despite the cover illustration showing a group of Victorian working men collectively reading a newspaper. Bringing to light the experience of shared reading, such as that seen in this photograph, might tell us much about reading as a ‘functional’ activity, that is, one that presupposes concrete acts in the world. By studying such experiences in the past, and analysing the relationship between reading and action, we will uncover varieties of everyday experience that have so far remained ignored by historians, but, like other forms of reading, warrant our close attention.

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