Reading aloud was a common social activity in the romantic period
Reading aloud was a common social activity in the romantic period

What I want to focus on in H.J. Jackson’s study of marginalia, Romantic Reader: The Evidence of Marginalia, is her compelling account of the social nature of reading in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Marginalia, for instance, is an example of writing conducted for the purpose of being shared. In my previous blog, I wrote about William St. Clair revising the conclusion that because texts were widely circulated, they were also widely accessible. He suggests that one of the factors that prevented access was price. Jackson, on the other hand, focused on the common practice of sharing texts in this period. Jackson claims that even if one could not possess “reading matter,” one could “still listen and talk about what [one] has heard” (10), which is another common practice in the romantic period. The practice of reading aloud and sharing and renting texts made accessibility less problematic. Thus, despite the various deterrents enforced by the book trade and the government to own print, from price to copyright law, renting and sharing created a network of readers that dodged these restrictions (28).

A few things allowed for, as Jackson claims, “an enviable distribution network,” of reading matter, one of which is advertising (15). Newspapers and periodicals built an appetite for reading as they listed the new publication of books and their successful reviews. Additionally, limited competition among booksellers and publishers did not always negatively impact the distribution of print. Because of the London book trade monopoly, publishers reinforced a mutually profiting system that advertised new titles as “sold by all booksellers” (10). Though newspapers and advertisements came from London, they made “networks available for distribution of printed material from all over the country” (10). If a particular book was not available, it could be ordered from the publisher by a circulating library or a bookseller. Jackson suggests that this widespread distribution created a “nationwide network of readers” who were, like we are today when we use the internet, conscious of their “common experience and collective power” as consumers of media (12).

Taxes on print, namely the Stamp Act, did not stop people in all branches of society from reading
Taxes on print, namely the Stamp Act, did not stop people in all branches of society from reading

One of the reasons publishers and authors did not want to sell cheap books, according to Jackson, is that they were thought to reduce the value of the content. Thus, a cheap book was a bad book with a bad author (30). One of the exceptions to this commonly held belief is conduct literature, specifically the works of Hannah Moore, which was printed and sold in bulk at a cheap price. This suggests the close-nit partnership between the British government and book trade, as works which prove to be advantageous to not only the muscle-power of expanding the British empire but also its cultural power were made accessible. Conduct literature promotes values that create distinctive borders between attributes of a citizen and noncitizen. Jackson also provides a reason, claiming that authors of conduct literature did not write for the purpose of making a profit. Establishing and reinforcing a smaller market also made sense commercially. As Jackson concedes, it did not demand a high investment in capitol that might yield a smaller return. Thus, a “small run selling briskly at a high price would finance reprints with less risk” (28). The image that Jackson projects of the book trade is different than one we receive in St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. As in St. Clair, the publishers seem to be the “bad guys” who sometimes profit unfairly at an author’s expense, reinforce monopoly production, and waste unsold stocks instead of selling them at a low cost (99).

A well designed and furnished personal library was also a status symbol
A well designed and furnished private library was also a status symbol

What is most compelling about Jackson’s work is his elaboration of the ways in which books fostered and encouraged “social connections” (53). It can easily be taken for granted that reading in the romantic period was a social act, whereas today, it is an individual one. Conversations about books in the family or in social circles, for instance, began by reading aloud to others (54). Thus, such a distribution of networks created cultural standards for one’s ability to successfully manipulate media and engage in various discourses.

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