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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

Over the last couple of weeks, the longer days combined with a stretch of very good weather in England have prompted me to start thinking about summer reading. I have wasted some significant time at my desk staring out the window at the garden, longing for rising temperatures so that I can go outside to read a book, and also daydreaming about reading under palm trees on beaches while breathing in fresh sea air. But such thoughts have also encouraged me to take advantage of some of the new search features in RED to explore reading patterns during the summer months in times past. The large number of entries in RED (now approaching the 25,000 mark) certainly meant that the results from my searches were numerous and diverse. But even more than this, they pushed me beyond my original, and rather basic, research question, namely about the similarities and differences in summer reading over time, to a range of much more interesting lines of enquiry.

There are, unsurprisingly, a number of entries in RED of men and women reading while on a summer holiday, and some readers indicate in letters and diaries that they have more time to read during the summer. Henry James wrote to his mother in April 1879 that whilst he had received a copy of his father’s book, ‘really to read it, I must lay it aside till the summer’. Yet it is crucial to note that more time for reading for many of the lower orders was not provided by holidays, but instead by the extra hours of daylight. Simon Eliot’s recent work on artificial light has drawn our attention to the financial sacrifices made by a large number of people in the past in order to read, as well as the potential dangers of reading beside a naked flame and the way in which illumination could shape the reading experience. Entries in RED highlight the importance of natural light. For instance, collier lad Thomas Burt (b.1837) took advantage of the early sunrise during summer, rising at four to go into the fields to read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before he had to begin work in the coal mine. Similarly, although Stuart Wood’s days at Maidstone Gaol were governed by bells and a strict routine, the light which streamed through the small window of his cell during the early morning and evening meant that he was able to devour works by Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Shelling, Schopenhauer, Fechner and Lotze in 1914.

The warmth provided by the sun could also, for some readers, increase their enjoyment of the reading experience. Patricia Beer remembered her mother reading novels to her sister and herself in the meadow beyond the garden on warm summer evenings during the interwar years. A century earlier, journeyman tailor Thomas Carter retreated to Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens on hot summer afternoons to read poetry under the shady trees. But, especially for readers in the colonies, summer heat could be oppressive, and shape reading experiences in a very different way. John Buckley Castieau, a prison governor in Melbourne, recorded in his diary on 23 January 1870 that he dreaded ‘going to bed, everything smelling hot and stuffy, laid down for a time on the sofa, then got up and read till I was tired then went to bed.’ In this case, reading could help to provide some relief, but at other times unbearable heat could discourage reading altogether. For instance, the very next day, Castieau went to the Mechanic’s Institute in the evening to read the newspapers, but only managed to glance at the pictures in the English comic periodicals as ‘The Reading Room was very hot and I could not bring my mind to read’.

With summer approaching, the RED Team is looking towards the launch of version 3.0 of the database. As almost all of our planned search functions are up and running, what can you expect to see added to the site during July? At present, we are working on a facility which would allow users to create a marked list of entries, and to export these in a print-friendly format to specified email addresses. We also hope to create a browse function, to give users an overall picture of the contents of the database before searching for more specific fields. The large quantity of data now stored in RED has meant that the site has already become a valuable research tool. However, our vision is that RED will continue to grow, encourage new lines of inquiry and shape research. And this is only achievable if scholars and other interested members of the public remain committed to contributing entries. If you have evidence of reading in the past, or if you would like to get involved in research in the history of reading, please do get in touch with us (contact details below).

In addition to database development, the RED Team has also played host to another very successful event, on women and reading during the nineteenth century held at the Institute of English Studies on 26 March. We would like to thank our speakers, Christina de Bellaigue, Ella Dzelzainis, Naomi Hetherington, and Mark Towsey for their extremely illuminating papers, and our panel respondents, David Finkelstein and Gill Sutherland, for their expertise in drawing out the connections between the papers. And we would like to thank our participants, who ensured that discussion was thought-provoking, focused and helpful.

We would also like to take this opportunity to advertise another event we are organising for autumn. On 29 September, we are holding a special event at the British Library in London to mark the end of the period of AHRC funding for RED and to look towards the future of the database as a research and teaching tool for the history of reading. More details will be posted on the RED website shortly:

Finally, we would like to thank the following people for their help and support over the last quarter: Matthew Bradley, Juliet John, Karen Attar, John d’Arcy, Lord Margadale, Tom and Elizabeth Heydeman, Angus Vine, William St Clair, Felicity Stimpson, Jenny Hartley, Shane Malhotra, Julie Watt, Olive Classe and Richard Dury.


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:

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from: William Hone, ‘The Yearbook’, 1832
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