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The Secret Lives of Readers
December 29, 2012 11:14 AM   Subscribe

The Secret Lives of Readers Books reveal themselves. Whether they exist as print or pixels, they can be read and examined and made to spill their secrets. Readers are far more elusive. They leave traces—a note in the margin, a stain on the binding—but those hints of human handling tell us only so much. The experience of reading vanishes with the reader. How do we recover the reading experiences of the past? Lately scholars have stepped up the hunt for evidence of how people over time have interacted with books, newspapers, and other printed material.
posted by jason's_planet (25 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
A thread where we can spill our beans, no less...

Grazi mille!
posted by infini at 11:32 AM on December 29, 2012


Until I was about 7 I used to compulsively tear off a tiny piece of the corner of at least one page and eat it. Library books, too. Sorry, Howard County Library copy of Fellowship of the Rings. You were so eye-opening. And so tasty.

If I'd had a Kindle, I guess my pica might've spared the books.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:38 AM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nice article. Also, see Barthes' S/Z.
posted by donquixote at 11:39 AM on December 29, 2012


I love the painting accompanying the article, because when I was 13 my family and I drove all the way from Sarnia, Ontario, to Jasper, Alberta and back, and I spent a lot of time in the back of our van missing out on some amazing scenery* in favour of whatever I was reading at the time.

"Oh, Yellowstone National Park? That's cool, I guess, but I've got Dragonlance to read."

* on the other hand, I had books to distract me from North Dakota
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:50 AM on December 29, 2012


Until I was about 7 I used to compulsively tear off a tiny piece of the corner of at least one page and eat it.

Oh my god, you too? I did that for years. (I was pretty good about avoiding library books, though.) It wasn't just one page, though. I'm pretty sure all of my books were awfully ragged around the corners. I don't remember stopping, actually, although I'm pretty sure Bubble Tape was involved.

I've been rereading the Wheel of Time books (in preparation for the last volume to come out, twenty years after I started) and one of the volumes has a mysterious ruddy stain. I don't think it's blood - I can't imagine why I would have bled all over it - but I can't swear it's not.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:55 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A confession: I can't eat properly or enjoy my food if there isn't a book (if I'm alone) and vice versa with snacks and foods. So, stains are a part of life and probably a history of cuisine
posted by infini at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


The person who used a very crispy piece of bacon as a bookmark in Leon Plantinga's Romantic Music in 1992 is still On My List.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:31 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nice thread. Since breaking up with the spouse, I left the houseful of books I've accumulated over a lifetime for a hard drive with almost all the books I wanted. The convenience of the iPhone/iPad is awesome, but man sometimes I miss the smell of the pages and so many other things....
posted by nevercalm at 12:32 PM on December 29, 2012


If you should find yourself in the Weldon library at the University of Western Ontario, track down its well-bound hardcover copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in seven (?) volumes. If you look carefully, you'll find a set of instructions somewhere in the middle volumes. They will direct you to another, unrelated book somewhere else in the library. It's a fragment of someone's scavenger hunt decades ago. I have no idea what you will find at the end of the game. I was busy reading Gibbon.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:06 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


"Most of the time, most readers historically didn't, and still don't, write in their books," Price explains.

Ah, civilisation. At the same time, I love reading other people's notes in books (as long as I don't catch the note-taker in the act). It seems contradictory, but when someone else has written in the book, it is a done matter, a historical record that adds another layer to the book. I'd rather use a post-it for myself.

Victorians also worried about books as vectors of disease—"that question of where has that library book been," Price says. Proposals circulated for book-disinfecting machines to be installed at libraries. "It was mainly, if you pardon the pun, vaporware," she says. "But there were a lot of prototypes designed."

Now that's a good pun.

With the spread of public transportation, "the newspaper grows up with the commuter rail as a way of avoiding eye contact," Price says.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. I wonder if public transportation would also get too crowded to read back then.

A confession: I can't eat properly or enjoy my food if there isn't a book (if I'm alone)

I suspect a lot of Mefites feel the same. Newspapers, online articles and any printed matter up to and including recipes for cooking rice on the back of packs are also acceptable.
posted by ersatz at 2:38 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


any printed matter up to and including recipes for cooking rice on the back of packs are also acceptable.

In my experience organic (or "organic"-style) food packaging often packs the most text per product. Bronner's liquid soap is the champion, of course, if other products are included.
posted by mr. digits at 3:10 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The John F. Kennedy Library here in Boston owns a copy of Ulysses whose pages—other than a few at the very beginning and very end—are completely uncut,” she says. “This tells us something about the owner of the copy—who happens to be Ernest Hemingway."

Tells us what, exactly? That he never read it? Or that he owned many smuggled copies which he passed on to friends? Don't we already know which of those is true?
posted by Segundus at 3:35 PM on December 29, 2012


"People in the 19th century are walking in a forest of print."

There was plenty of ephemera in earlier centuries as well. As early as the sixteenth century, quick run commentary on major events far far away (Siege of Malta, Battle of Lepanto, Spanish Armada) were widely printed, pirated, translated, republished, used to wrap fish....
posted by BWA at 4:15 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not a collector of pristine printed works. With my books, the more beat-up they are -- the more stained, dog-eared, spine-cracked, with weird things pressed between the pages, marginalia in the sides, unrelated notes or phone numbers jotted down in the flyleaf or the back side of the dust cover, imprints on the cover from using it as a surface to write on other paper -- the more damaged a book is, the more it's been part of my life.

Stains, nicks, mailing tape, dog toothmarks, parking passes and movie stubs as bookmarks, scribbled notes and passwords, my books are a messy record of my existence.
posted by cmyk at 4:47 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Worry not researchers! With the new electronic books they track you.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:37 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tells us what, exactly?
Anyone who's ever worked in this area knows the disappointment of the pristine page. You come across an association copy of a famous book and open it expectantly, hoping to find a meeting of the minds—some notation, something, to indicate readership. And it turns out that you are really the book's first reader. (Or, more likely, that you are just the latest in a series of disappointed researchers, whose previous disappointments never made it into print.)

But when you do find something, it's like, as Heather Jackson says in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, "a letter in a bottle." It almost seems like it's addressed to you. (And, indeed, as Jackson points out, there is something undeniably public about writing in a book: every annotator wants or expects an audience.) Even if you only find a few fingerprints, creased pages, or—as Timothy Ryback claims to have found in one of Hitler's books—a bristly moustache hair, you feel like you're actually eavesdropping on someone else's aesthetic experience in real time. It's an unexpectedly intense feeling. I had this experience recently in the stacks of my own university library: I pulled down an old, donated copy of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt's Diaries and quickly found that it was full of old fountain-pen annotations. And, even better, that the annotations were incredibly pungent, vivid, and frequently abusive. And that they were even signed and dated. A bit of research into the annotator revealed that he was one of Britain's first successful socialist politicians. (He'd won a ward in Birmingham on an explicitly socialist ticket at the turn of the twentieth century.) It was a little chastening to realise that these marginalia were all that were left of what was clearly an active mind, incredibly well-stocked with political and personal gossip. Reminds me: I really should write that up.

Not that marginalia are necessarily transparent windows into a reader's experience. Janice Cavell tells the story of coming across an annotated copy of the regimental history of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles in World War I, marked up by a veteran, the margins (apparently) full of scrawled memories of heroic actions. Yet, when she cross-checked the story left in the marginalia against the annotator's service record, she found it was all lies: the soldier had been a shell-shock case, and had left the regiment for a lengthy series of stays in convalescent wards and psychiatric hospitals. No doubt ashamed, he'd left a false (or wished-for) account of his service in the margins of the book for his children and family to find.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that I find marginalia fascinating.
posted by Sonny Jim at 3:29 AM on December 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have books which have multi coloured post its emerging from every side, varying their distance from the margins.
posted by infini at 3:49 AM on December 30, 2012


Occasionally I'll be re-reading an old book of mine and I'll come across a grey smear that was the result of spilled ash or even the odd single strand of tobacco to remind me I was once a smoker.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:42 AM on December 30, 2012


A confession: I can't eat properly or enjoy my food if there isn't a book (if I'm alone)

I've been reading while eating since I was a young child and my mom would take me and my brother to the library, let us pick out a bunch of books, and then come home and make grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch. We would all sit down to lunch, with our new books, and read while we ate. I remember how at that time, many of the books would lay flat on the table and it was easy to eat and turn pages, but as the books got thicker and had less pictures, I had to figure out how to eat with one hand and hold the book with the other, or, eat with both hands and prop the book open somehow.

My Kindle has made this task so much easier.
posted by persephone's rant at 8:51 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Congratulations on the shoutout, Sonny Jim!

It's a good article, though I'm not impressed with the academic who claims that 'nobody had been interested in that kind of thing' before she started her research. (To be fair to her, she probably didn't mean it to be as nakedly self-promoting as it sounds here ..) Robert Darnton's seminal article 'What is the History of Books?' (thirty years old this year) gives great prominence to the history of reading, particularly the history of ordinary people's reading experiences, and the research questions that he sets out haven't really changed much since then. What has changed is the body of available evidence, now massively increased and made very much easier to use, thanks to digital projects like RED and the newly-launched Annotated Books Online.
posted by verstegan at 10:28 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember how at that time, many of the books would lay flat on the table and it was easy to eat and turn pages, but as the books got thicker and had less pictures, I had to figure out how to eat with one hand and hold the book with the other, or, eat with both hands and prop the book open somehow.

I've been trying to get more reading back into my life, and the main issue has been how to hold the books up. This cookbook stand on top of a five-inch stack of other books worked surprisingly well at the kitchen table. I haven't figured out how to suspend a book above my eyeballs for reading in bed, though... at least not without potential injury.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:02 PM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I haven't figured out how to suspend a book above my eyeballs for reading in bed, though... at least not without potential injury.

Cmon....one of these made of plexiglas suspended from the ceiling over your pillow, with a headlamp. I made a shelf like that freeswinging from the ceiling at about five feet for plants. It was great.
posted by nevercalm at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2012


Well, yeah, but then how do you turn the pages? I suppose that'd be an argument for a Kindle with a remote control.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:34 PM on December 30, 2012


Personally, I read with Stanza on an iPhone, with a black background and grey text. I miss books, but the ability to read in the dark next to a sleeping person was amazing for an insomniac.
posted by nevercalm at 4:53 PM on December 30, 2012


Congratulations on the shoutout, Sonny Jim!
Thanks, verstegan! It's really gratifying to see an article like this out there, and it was fun to be involved (however marginally). I was so impressed with the job Jennifer Howard and the Chronicle did on this piece: she's an extremely smart writer and knows how to get the best out of her interview subjects.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:38 AM on December 31, 2012


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