Skip to content
The Open University
« Arts Research

RED Project

The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945

The Reading Experience Database;
or, what are we to do about the history of reading?

When I was fourteen, ardent, scraggy and pustular, I fell in love with a librarian. She was three or four years older than I was and quite unapproachable behind the banks of cards at the issue counter. Until that time I had visited our local public library every week or so in search of books on my current consuming passion which happened to be medieval arms and armour. I could tell all, in dismal detail, about the distinctions between thirteenth and fifteenth century broadswords; I could button-hole you on the subject of the evolution of the bassinet and armet. I was, in other words, a bore and no lover. However, even I could detect that as a seductive subject, something you could whisper in your mistress’s ear, the tactical errors of the French at the battle of Agincourt left a lot to be desired.

As soon as I had been struck by that dart which no plate armour could deflect, I realised that I would have to change my ostensible reading matter if I were to impress her. I began lurking by the shelves of sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry. I specialised in the obscurest of the Metaphysicals. I would hold the book open and up higher than normal so that, while apparently reading, I could follow her progress as she re-shelved the returns by looking along the gutter of the book as though through the sights of a rifle. When she came within range I would suddenly look up with a pained but thoughtful expression as though I had just been struck by an unbearably poignant and apt conceit that bore all too close a resemblance to my own predicament.

When it was time for the Library to close, when all the pensioners who had nowhere else to go and who warmed their socks by stuffing them between the fins of the radiators, had been turned out, I would collect the oddest volumes of Kant and Hume and take them for date-stamping to her in the hope that she would see more than the issue page, that she would see how profound I was, how the Metaphysicals were only the light stuff to while away a couple of odd hours before I got down to wrestling with Kant, and no doubt throwing him too.

I’d be back two or three days later with my volumes of Kant and Hume, but would not return them unless she were on the desk, for I wanted her to understand that I had read them all; that, in my nights rendered restless by love, I had struggled with and triumphed over those great Enlightenment thinkers.

In truth, of course, those volumes had rested in a neat pile by my bedside unwrestled with, unread, unopened while I slumbered in unanguished and untroubled repose.

I recount this pathetic piece of my early adolescent history not because I am under any delusions about its uniqueness, rather the contrary, because I am convinced that, although its details may be different, the pattern of behaviour, particularly the way in which I used books, is not. From finely-bound folios residing in the purpose-built libraries of eighteenth-century gentlemen who only used those libraries to fall asleep in, through the pages of Codex Sinaiticus being used to light fires in the Convent of St Catherine, to Bertie Wooster buying Spindrift because Lady Florence catches him idly leafing through it in a book shop, we are endlessly reminded that there are myriad reasons to buy, borrow and own books which have absolutely nothing to do with any intention to read them. Nor should we imagine that the intention to read saves a book from the ignominious fate of so many of its fellows: Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time must be inching towards the Guinness Book of Records accolade as the least read bestseller in the history of hype.

This leads us to the first and greatest caveat in the history of reading: to own, buy, borrow or steal a book is no proof of wishing to read it, let alone proof of having read it.

There are tedious people who quote in a semi-knowledgeable way from books they have not read: ‘She just growed and growed like Topsy’ they say without the faintest idea of who Topsy was or from what book she came; there are quotations galore from Mr Micawber from those who have never turned a page of David Copperfield; there are those who will talk about some impending disaster concentrating the mind without having read Johnson’s defensive comment on his work for the Reverend William Dodd. I could go on.

The second caveat is that quoting, or misquoting, a text is no proof of having read it.

In the period in which I am most interested (the nineteenth century) the book was not the predominant form of text and, more than likely, was not therefore the thing most commonly or widely read. By 1907, as the first Census of Production makes clear, books in terms of net value were worth some 14 % of the total value of print production (and that included manuscript books and ledgers). The two areas of largest value were, in ascending order, jobbing printing and periodical printing. The most common reading experience, by the mid-nineteenth century at latest, would most likely be the advertising poster, all the tickets, handbills and forms generated by an industrial society, and the daily or weekly paper. Most of this reading was, of course, never recorded or commented upon for it was too much a part of the fabric of everyday life to be noticed.

The third caveat is, therefore, is that any reading recorded in an historically recoverable way is, almost by definition, an exceptional recording of an uncharacteristic event by an untypical person.

The history of reading is riddled with such enigmas and uncertainties. Given all these problems, why should we even attempt it when there are so many other aspects of book history where the evidence is more solid and the methodology clearer? The answer is, of course, that we’ve no alternative. To write the history of a product without also writing the history of its consumption is to have a cart without a horse. Books, as the judge agreed when the Net Book Agreement was successfully defended in the 1960s, are different. They are not simply an industrial product like a car or a refrigerator: the way books are read, who reads which books, determines the intellectual and cultural context in which the next generation of books will be read, indeed significantly influences the views and techniques of those who will write the next generation of books. The reading of books thus represents a very complex feedback loop which partly determines the way in which text is written, manufactured, sold, bought, borrowed - and read. However difficult it is to face, it will be the development in the history of reading which will make sense of all the other aspects of the history of the book - or not, if we don’t manage to crack it.

A couple of years ago I attended one of the first international conferences on the history of reading. It was a highly instructive event with some quite outstanding papers: one on the function of John Dee’s library; one on the reading of a particularly lively eighteenth-century woman, Anna Larpent; and an excellent study of the clientele of one particular provincial English bookseller. There were also, as there always are on these occasions, papers that could be patented as non-toxic cures for insomnia. But the ones that interested me the most were those that attempted to generalise the historical experience of reading; they were interesting because they were such catastrophic failures: failures for no other reason than their generalisations were based on one, narrow piece of evidence, or on no evidence at all worth speaking of. What this conference vividly demonstrated was the emergence of new subject where the methodology was still unformed and the resources needed still undefined. I looked forward to the concluding plenary session of that conference in the full expectation that the methodological problems would be highlighted and some proposals put forward that might eventually solve them, or at least render them more soluble. In fact the session was devoted to the need for more close studies, more individual reader’s diaries to be investigated, more late medieval glosses to be disinterred. It was the pragmatic view of a Victorian naturalist: go away and fill another twenty cabinets full of the most elegantly mounted moths and a solution is bound to emerge. But, of course, it won’t; not unless you create some common ground between all those armed with butterfly nets. As a minimum, firstly you need to define the common and significant characteristics of a reading experience so that, whatever else you record, and however unique the situation, you note down factors that can be compared, example by example; secondly, you create system that, however many cases of butterflies you collect, you can call up any selection, from any case, in any order you choose. These two necessities seemed to me to characterise a database management system.

There seemed to be one other characteristic of the study of the history of reading which made a large-scale database absolutely vital. You cannot simply take on a PhD student and ask him or her to ‘go out and study the history of reading’. Quite legitimately, your student would respond by saying ‘But where?’. Unless you happen to have a cache of detailed reading diaries hoarded up by a quiet curate somewhere, or a collection of well-annotated 17th Century theology books, you’d be hard put to it to suggest where the student might begin. The truth is that, although not exclusively so, the evidence for reading is obscure, hidden, scattered and fragmentary. Its discovery is often a matter of serendipity. Again and again some of the best evidence for the history of reading tends to be the by-product of other research: one stumbles over an extensively glossed book, a diary entry reveals a day devoted to specific reading with comments attached, a public library report refers to the odd reading habits of a counting-house clerk, and so on. On their own they are nothing more than picturesque anecdotes, listed together they seem too disparate to mean much. Quite often these historical asides get recorded on 6x4 inch cards and then forgotten.

If we don’t do something about this evidence it will remain permanently fragmented and useless. What if, however, we widely circulated the news that we were collecting reading experience data and started, modestly and quietly, to feed the information we got into a database? The answer is, in the short term, nothing much: the bits and pieces wouldn’t make much of a pattern or much of a resource. However, if the project were sustained for five to ten years, or longer, then the volume of material, and the fact that it could be searched in a multitude of ways, would make it a major source for the historical study of reading. We should approach the history of reading in the same way as wise (and affluent) parents lay down wine for their children or, longer term, as eighteenth-century landscape gardeners designed for fifty to one hundred years after their time.

Thus did I argue in my valedictory editorial in the January 1991 issue the BTHG Newsletter which I directed specifically at the new Centre for the Book at the British Library, arguing that such a new and prestigious organisation ought to link itself to a new and prestigious academic project - the Reading Experience Database or RED.

For a time nothing happened. Hardly surprising as the Centre for the Book was a new, experimental agency and, like all such in this country, was under-funded to the point of poverty. However, as the Centre gradually sorted itself out, it found that it was in a position to provide some secretarial help for the keying-in of data. The Open University offered to provide a database program and space on its research mainframe computer. Slowly things began to stir. In 1992 a Steering Committee was established to design the mechanics of the scheme, to sort out a set of sensible parameters that would define the chronological and geographical range of RED, and to agonise over the design of the record form that each contributor would be asked to fill in for each recorded reading experience. Discussions continue but many of the major decisions have now been taken.

Our chronological scope will be wide, 1450-1914, and our geographical scope reasonably generous: we are interested in readers born or resident in the British Isles reading in any language whatsoever. This means that we shall be interested, for instance, in what British-born readers read when they were abroad (what did Milton read, and in what circumstances, when he was in Italy?). We shall be concerned with what other nationals read while they were here (what did Erasmus read when he was in Cambridge?). We shall be recording what the first generation of British settlers and, later, Irish emigrants read when they arrived in the New World. We shall be cataloguing what was read in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Welsh, Erse and so on, as well as in English. We shall be interested in whether reading took place in company or alone, whether the reading was silent or aloud; and, if aloud and in company, whether the audience listened passively or participated by making comments (when the paterfamilias read the latest instalment of a Dickens novel to the assembled family, did its members comment on or discuss the story? Were servants present and , if so, how did they react?). We will not forget that many in the past got their experience of texts from listening rather than reading. We shall be interested in finding out to which socio-economic group the reader belonged and the physical circumstances in which the reading took place and at what time of day it occurred. We shall be keen to find out whether the book (or whatever form the text took) was owned by the reader, whether borrowed (from another individual or from a library), bought or stolen or read in situ (how many of us have spent some time in a book shop reading what we never intended to buy?).

Amid this open and inclusive policy of data-gathering there will be certain restrictions: for the time being at least we shall not be recording fictional examples of reading, we shall not be recording the reading of private letters (though letters to newspapers and open letters will be included) and we shall not be recording paid public performances (such as Dickens’s readings).

Given such a scope, and given that we would like to record as much information about each reading experience as possible, designing the record form has been something of a nightmare. Anyone who has ever tackled such a job knows what a problem this can be: you need to record as much information as possible so the particularity of the experience is caught like a fly in amber; on the other hand you want to encourage as many people as possible to fill in as many record forms as practical, and there is nothing like an over-elaborate form for curbing the enthusiastic and deterring the averagely-committed. This process of form-designing continues, but we are edging towards a compromise that will offer a largish number of fields but will also suggest a minimum route through the form that will require only five pieces of information. This will mean that we shall be able to record anything from the most vague (’a person [gender unspecified] reading a novel in the 1820s’) to the most precise (’Samuel Pepys alone and silently reading John Rushworth’s Historical Collections (1659) for "an hour or two" in his office in Seething Lane, London before supper on the night of Sunday 6 December 1663’).

When the RED project is launched (in November 1995) we shall send out copies of the RED form far and wide with the encouragement to those who need more either to ask us or resort to photocopying. But our reach will extend further than hard copy. We intend to use electronic mail, electronic conferencing and that extraordinary world-wide network, the Internet, to spread an ACSII version of the form. Should potential contributors have a large amount of data to key-in we will send them a version on floppy disk that will provide on-screen prompts to help them fill in the form.

We do not expect, particularly in the early years of the project when the momentum will still be building up, for there to a be continuous, even flow of data coming in from contributors. On the contrary, it is bound to come in fits and starts. For this reason the RED Steering Committee is devising a long list of what it calls ’standard works’. These are mostly either studies of reading that naturally record a large number of examples of historical reading experience, or diaries, journals, autobiographies, biographies, etc. which include many references to the central subject’s reading matter. Both types of work will provide a density of data which will justify the task of working systematically through them to extract the reading experiences they record. This task will be undertaken by members of the Steering Committee and by what we hope will be a large group of volunteer enthusiasts. Many of these jobs will allow us to give a proper academic justification to acts which would otherwise be pure pleasure: who would object to reading Pepys’s diary or the collected letters of Dickens? If anyone would like to suggest titles to be included in this standard list, or who would like to volunteer as a RED reader, please contact one of the two Directors of RED whose names appear at the end of this article.

As suggested above, RED will take some time to mature, but we hope that there will be enough information in the database within five years to make it available to users on various networks. In time we hope also to issue RED on a series of regularly up-dated CD-ROMs.

The RED projects ends several years of planning in November 1995 with a formal launch. Once it is up and running we hope to keep contributors and, indeed, all those interested in the project in touch with how it is developing by regular reports in all journals that have a natural interest in the history of text and the ways in which texts were read in the past.

Who knows, in four or five years time you may be able to type in ‘Kant’ and ‘1800-1830’ and find out who during that period really read the Critique of Pure Reason rather than just borrowed it to impress a potential girlfriend.

Simon Eliot, Founder of the Reading Experience Database

© The Open University   +44 (0)845 300 60 90   Email us