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The Reading Experience Database (RED), 1450–1945

RED Letter: The Newsletter of the Reading Experience Database


Edited by Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey

Summer 2008 proved to be an extremely busy season for the RED team: we have achieved many things and enjoyed invigorating discussions on the subject of reading at a large number of conferences. Foremost, we were proud to host a very rewarding conference at the Institute of English Studies in London on the evidence of reading. It was extremely well-attended, and, we think, successful – thanks to the efforts of all those who participated. We are especially pleased to be able to publish in REDLetter two conference reports prepared by graduate students – these can be found below (or follow this link). At the conference, we were also delighted to be able to launch RED Version 2, which features an updated search page with new search functions. As the contents of RED continue to grow at a rapid rate, we hope that users will be able to pinpoint entries of interest with much greater ease. More search functions will continue to be added to the Advanced Search page over the course of this final year of AHRC funding, and we plan to release a further update, RED Version 3, during summer 2009. We would also like to take this opportunity to draw your attention to a questionnaire we have posted on the home page of our project website which we hope will help us identify priorities for the design of Version 3. If you are a regular user of RED, we would be very grateful if you could find the time to complete the survey and return it to us, either electronically or by mail to the addresses provided. The questionnaire can be found here.

The focus of the conference, and indeed RED, has firmly been on the evidence of reading. As many of you are aware, we collect evidence of reading experiences, that is, recorded engagements with specific texts by identifiable individuals. However, in her thought-provoking conclusion to the conference, Leah Price challenged this particular focus in the field of the history of reading, suggesting that we need to widen our notions of engagement with texts and become more sensitive to the materiality of forms of print and manuscript. So few readers deliberately leave any trace of their encounter with the text behind. But might we be able to find a way to assess the significance of a stain from a coffee mug on an old newspaper, or even dirty fingerprints on the margins of a book? I am a little embarrassed to admit that in my own teaching career I have been guilty of returning essays to students with faint smudges of jam on the paper from marking their work at the breakfast table that morning. Yet, my past experiences as an undergraduate confirm that many others commit like offences.

Similarly, it is worth considering how we might incorporate rather different engagements with various forms of text into our general conceptions of the history of reading. My recent research into reading in the nineteenth-century prison has illuminated the wide range of uses books and other forms of print can be put to, especially in situations of desperation. I will provide just two very brief examples. Confined in Millbank at the end of the century, ‘No. 7’ remembered that a fellow prisoner had taken to supplementing his food rations with paper. As he wrote,

For some time there had been complaints made to the chaplain and governor that the library books were in a sad state, owing to many leaves being found missing. One day the great mystery was solved. An inspection of all the books in the possession of every prisoner was ordered – prayer-books, hymn-books, Bibles and educational works – was ordered, and when the searchers examined the cell of my friend on the opposite side of the landing, they found that every book in his cell had leaves missing. One book, indeed the cell Bible, had lost more than fifty pages!

The ‘Ticket of Leave Man’, sentenced to penal servitude several decades earlier and serving his sentence at Portland, described in his memoirs how wives of soldiers stationed nearby would throw treats over the prison walls for the inmates. ‘I did not care for the tobacco’, the ex-convict wrote, ‘but I must plead to having once found a jam tart carefully wrapped in a London evening paper of the previous day.’ Finally, it might be worth noting that marginalia (notes made in books) might not always prove an engagement with that particular text. Modern prison officials and former inmates have at times alluded to the use of prison library books for sending coded messages between prisoners, often by underlining specific letters or phrases.

 These alternative forms of evidence and interpretative strategies at present fall beyond the remit of RED. But we hope that the evidence in RED, and especially the discussion it has generated, will help to push the field forward in these exciting directions.

As it has been such a busy summer, we have accumulated large debts of gratitude and have many people to thank for their help, support and kindness. First, we would like to thank all those who participated in the ‘Evidence of Reading’ conference in London in July, and in particular, those who helped with the organisation of the event: Jon Millington, Valerie Hall, Karen Attar, and Yvonne Reynolds; those who helped over the three days of the conference: Wim Van Mierlo, Amy Flanders, Mary Hammond, Jonathan Arnold, Jenny MacAuley, and Chrissie Lees. We are grateful to everyone who chaired a panel or panels. We would also like to extend a special thank you to our keynote speakers and roundtable participants: Kate Flint, Jonathan Rose, David Vincent, Mary Hammond, Leah Price, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor. And, of course, thanks to all those who gave papers and participated in the discussions after each panel. The RED Team have been very fortunate to have been delegates at a number of conferences during the summer, and we would like to thank the organisers of those events for their hospitality and for providing us with air time to publicise our research project: Ian Gadd, Kate Longworth, Jane Potter and Claire Squires (organisers of SHARP Oxford); Bethan Benwell, James Procter and Gemma Robinson (organisers of ‘Reading After Empire’); Simon Frost and the organising committee of SHARP Copenhagen; Juliet John and Mark Llewellyn (organisers of ‘Victorians and Heritage); the organisers of the Anglo-American ‘Communications; conference, and Gillian Dow, Hilary Brown and Kate Astbury (organisers of Readers, Writers Salonnières: Female Networks in Europe, 1700-1900’).

Generous assistance in terms of publicity and contributions of material has continued to be provided by a large number of supporters. We would like to welcome and thank new volunteers who have very kindly entered material from a wide range of sources: Ruth Roger Facer, Gillian Bingham, Dewi Evans, Shauna Barrett, Jennifer Johnston, Stephanie Munro, and Nicola Wilson. Your efforts are greatly appreciated and ensure that the contents of RED continue to be diverse and useful on many different levels. And thank you to those volunteers who are not new! We are, as always, grateful to you also. It is never too late to become a volunteer: if you would like to work on the reading of a particular individual, if you have some private family papers that record reading experiences, or if you can draw our attention to especially rich sources that are not yet in RED, please do get in touch – we would love to hear from you. Finally, we would like to extend a special thank you to Bob Patten, Leslie Howsam and Sydney Shep, who have been helping us to form closer links with SHARP, and to Mark Towsey, Toni Weller, Mike Esbester and Daniel Allington, all of whom have been enthusiastically spreading the word about RED.

Contact Details:  
Dr Rosalind Crone
Department of English
Faculty of Arts
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
Dr Katie Halsey
Institute of English Studies
School of Advanced Study
University of London
Malet Street
Email: Email:

Reviews of the July Conference, 'Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence'

Postgraduate Perspective on ‘Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence’
By Clare Gill, Queen’s University Belfast

When I first clicked my way through the online programme for this year’s “Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence” conference, I can now admit to being utterly overcome by an unexpected wave of nausea. Compiled of some one hundred-plus delegates and thirty-three panels over three days, this gargantuan programme made me fear that I would be sucked into the conference vortex, never to be seen again. Were my thesis supervisor not also giving a paper at this very event, I probably would have feigned a mystery illness to release myself from proceedings. For, despite being a bona fide bookworm who is writing a PhD about nineteenth-century readerships, I could not help but contemplate the all too obvious pink elephant in the room here: how much talk about reading can a person really take? Three full days and not-a-panel-skipped later, and I could truthfully answer (with an unhealthy dose of self-satisfied conviction): quite a lot, actually.

The conference, themed around the central issue of reading, brought together a diverse range of papers that together transcended the usual constraints of scholarly discipline, time period, geographical location and critical approach, to provide a wealth of new information and ideas for its participants. Delegates were fortunate enough to hear from a host of scholars at various stages in their careers, presenting research on topics ranging from 15th century readers and resisting readers in revolutionary America, to aspects of reading in nineteenth-century fiction and digital resources for the history of reading. I shall here offer a few of my own conference highlights, some of which betray my literature department training, and one or two that removed me from my comfort zone, yet affected me nonetheless, thus honouring the truly interdisciplinary spirit of this event.

In particular, I enjoyed Shih-Wen Sue Chen’s paper on William Dalton’s The Wolf Boy of China (1857), from which I gleaned new insights into the ways nineteenth-century fictional texts can themselves be scouted for internally held evidence of reading practices. Using the text itself as the point of origin, Shih-Wen illuminated a “chain” of texts that can be traced outwards from Dalton’s work as a means of identifying evidence of his reading. So too, Lizet Duyvendak’s paper on a community of late nineteenth-century readers clustered around the ‘Damesleesmuseum’ in the Netherlands introduced me to previously unexplored terrain. A fascinating account of a women’s-only reading community that developed throughout the first wave of feminism to meet the recreational and educative needs of upper middle-class women, Lizet’s canny use of library records (including catalogues, reader’s reports and lending records) forced me to seriously rethink some of the archival methods implemented to date in my own doctoral research.

These papers withstanding, looking back on the conference now from a distance of some weeks, two moments stand out particularly for me. First, the intellectual squabble that occurred between Professors Kate Flint and Jonathan Rose after the latter’s illuminating keynote speech, introduced a frisson of debate to proceedings after two days of spirited yet largely congratulatory panels. Flint claimed to “bristle” throughout Rose’s speech, which traced the rise of history of reading scholarship since the publication of Richard Altick’s opus, The English Common Reader (1957), chastising Rose for his disparaging account of the role played by theories of reading in the field. As one who works with notions of implied readers in nineteenth-century periodicals, yet also excavates historical reading experiences in my own research on Olive Schreiner’s readerships, Flint’s words held particular resonance and rang particularly true for me.

Secondly, and no less importantly, the conversation I had with Anna Vaninskaya about “Uncle Archie”, the inimitable Socialist Sunday School leader we have both encountered in our individual research of fin-de-siècle socialism, will stay with me for a long time to come. The chance to have an impassioned conversation about this most minor player in socialist history with a postdoctoral researcher my own age is an opportunity not likely to present itself again any time soon. Anna also alerted me to a hidden gem of an archive that I plan to visit next month, underscoring the importance of these kinds of events for the creation of scholarly networks where ideas and information can be exchanged.

Overall, “Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence” was a triumph, and the organisers of this well-executed, stimulating event should step up and take a well-deserved bow. Attending every panel possible, I managed to ignore the call of Oxford Street for three whole days -- I for one read that as evidence of this conference’s colossal success!

Conference Report: ‘Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence’, 21st-23rd July, 2008
By Richard Šípek, Library of the National Museum, Prague

In spite of initial inconveniences with my continental notebook plug and “island” socket I succeeded in getting the corrected version of my paper in time, wherefore – happily enough – the audience was not tortured by my eastern pidgin English.

The conference and all the papers, at least those I had the pleasure of listening to, were highly interesting and a good many of them brought fresh new ideas to my research. The papers dealing with the reading culture of the 19th and 20th century were of special interest to me as they presented the readers’ habits through the background of their handwritten notes in books or actual private remarks in their notebooks and diaries in a rather later period than that of my own research. They allowed me to compare reading perceptions 200 to 300 years younger than my actual period of interest and partly to confirm my assumption that readers and their customs do not change as fast as literary genres and their representations. The papers of Bridget Carrington, Mats Dalström, Matthew Bradley, Mark Nixon and Michael Ledger-Lomas should be mentioned in this context.

The papers by Bridget Carrington, Rachel Falconer and Matthew Grenby on books for children as well as on the books read by children during the last three hundred years dealt with different aspects of the matter. Rachel Falconer’s paper provided a great deal of justification to all of us who like to read children literature even though we are advanced in age! Matthew Grenby presented his statistical research on children’s reading in the context of the social background, sex and locality of the young readers. The results and information he achieved were highly interesting and surprisingly extensive and descriptive compared to the limited sources.

'The Reading Experience Database 1450-1945', introduced as the closing point of the second day of the conference, is an admirable project which, I hope, will be followed by similar projects set up in other European countries so as to provide the possibility of studying  mutual influences in reading cultures and the adoption of foreign reading habits.

The discussions following every block of three papers were perhaps even more valuable than the papers themselves. The discussions were very lively and all the participants posed questions which provoked new questions, all of them going deep and uncovering the very core of the issues under discussion. New methods of researching and new ways of conceptualising old problems were canvassed in these discussions. Unfortunately, the time for discussion could not grant enough space for such fundamental and profound changes. However, we must be grateful even for the initial stimulus and impulses and hope the discussions will continue not only in the conferences and meetings to come but also in journals and in e-mail exchanges.

It would be useful to set up an Internet conference on the topic. Understanding the act of “reading” and its hyponymic and/or hyperonymic relations to the definition of “use of books” could be re-thought anew by the Internet conference participants in intentions outlined during this year’s conference.


Forthcoming Events and Calls for Papers

The RED team is organising a symposium on Women’s Reading in the Nineteenth Century, which will take place on Thursday, 26 March 2009 at the Institute of English Studies, London. Confirmed speakers include Rosalind Crone, Katie Halsey, Gill Sutherland and David Finkelstein, and papers will focus on the different ways in which nineteenth-century female readers reacted to the many and various texts that they encountered. The day will end with a visit to the Women’s Library in Whitechapel, including a guided tour of the collections, and a look at the exhibition Between the Covers: the Politics and Pleasure of Women's Magazines.

For further information, please contact Shafquat Towheed (, Rosalind Crone ( or Katie Halsey (

For further forthcoming events, please follow this link.

from: William Hone, ‘The Yearbook’, 1832
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