Archive for April, 2010

A Child and His Books, c.1806

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

One of the more fascinating by-products of comprehensive editions of authors’ correspondence is that they sometimes preserve fragments of experience from deep childhood. William Henry Fox Talbot gained fame in adulthood as a pioneering photographer, and it’s in that context that a team from the University of Glasgow and De Montfort University have combined to digitize Talbot’s full Correspondence. However, as the Project Page notes, Talbot was an unusually prococious and forward-looking child. When he was eight, he instructed his stepfather to “tell Mamma & everybody I write to to keep my letters & not burn them.” The result of this is an archive of over ten thousand items, preserving letters written by Talbot when he was in an early stage of literacy. The oldest letter in the digital collection, dated 15 August 1806 and largely dictated to an adult amanuensis by a six-year-old Henry Talbot, describes a day in the life of an aristocratic child in the first decade of the nineteenth century. As the letter shows, reading aloud from books played a central role in that experience, along with food and an unfortunate tangle with a household chair:

Thursday. rose at 8, O’Clock, came to Po [Agnes Porter, governess and teacher], turned the Hour Glass and played with it.— read my Journal of Sepr 5, 1805, that you wrote for me. said my Prayers. hit my chin against a Chair, cried a little. Betty put some Pommade divine to it. told Po, my Journal. did a Sum in Substraction, then ate my breakfast; Tea and dried Toast, it was very good. — Po read the Travelled Ant while we were at Breafast. liked it very much. went down with Po to the Breakfast Room. went up stairs to Aunt Mary, gave her a kiss and told her that Breakfast was getting cold.— I forget the Answer. came down again, ate a Finger and some Currants. My Uncle gave me the Finger and Aunt Mary the Currants. read in the Evening at Home. after Breadfast went up to the Dressing Room with Aunt Mary and then went out with Jane and Betty. dug in Jane’s Garden with sticks; so did Jane. she brought out her three Books of Trades, we I read the Wool-comber. had my Hands washed and then we baked. went to Dinner. there was a Cherry Pie, and Toad in the Hole. — After Dinner we played at Shop.— went out again with Jane to the Garden; went into the Green house because it rained a little. made Mount Parnassas decorated it with Flowers, Coxcomb, yellow toad-Flax and Candy Tuft.— had my supper went to Desert.— staid in the Drawing room with Christiana and Po.— amused ourselves with the Couch.— then Po told us about Fairford and St Paul— went to Bed and slept very well.

The Talbot archive, searchable here, obviously provides a wealth of insights into the development of early photography. However, as this small extract shows, Talbot’s letters also promise to reveal much about the social and reading lives of Talbot, his family, and his contemporaries in early nineteenth-century Wiltshire.

Presidents, Mark Twain, and Marginalia

Monday, April 19th, 2010

The material traces of reading are so hot right now. Or, at least one could be forgiven for thinking so from stories on the reading practices of famous figures in the most recent Sunday issues of America’s two leading newspapers. In the latest edition of the Washington Post Sunday, Tevi Troy provides a brief, breezy, and entertaining survey of American Presidents and their books. Starting with John Adams, Troy recounts a tradition of engaged readers and autodidacts inhabiting the White House. The White House library of Adams himself, Troy notes, contained “more than 3,000 volumes—including Cicero, Plutarch and Thucydides—heavily inscribed with the president’s marginalia.” A cynical reader might wonder whether Troy’s status as a former senior aide to George W. Bush may have informed the article’s slant. Troy certainly seems keen to counter the suggestion that Bush was uninterested in books:

George W. Bush, though perhaps only the second-most-avid reader in his home behind librarian Laura Bush, was a dedicated reader who liked to count the titles he conquered. During his second term, an offhand comment by adviser Karl Rove led to annual competitions to see which of the two would tally the most books. And even though the books Bush and Rove consumed were usually quite meaty—mainly histories (“A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900″), cultural works (“Nine Parts of Desire”) and biographies (the titanic “Mao”)—when the competition became public, derision followed.

Troy ends the article by wondering what’s on the bedside table of President Obama, who, as Troy notes, entered the White House as an author, and a figure keenly aware of the power of writing in shaping political careers.

A more meaty article appears in this week’s Sunday New York Times. As part of the celebrations marking the centennial of the death of Samuel Clemens, Times journalist Alison Leigh Cowan works her way through a selection of books from Twain’s personal library. These books themselves have an interesting provenance. After moving to the town of Redding, Connecticut, Twain was perturbed to find that there was no local library. So, with commendable brio, he started a fund to found one, enlisting the financial support of Andrew Carnegie, and donated many hundreds of his own books to the nascent collection. As Cowan relates, many of these books continued to circulate at the library for decades. Only after copies that had been weeded from the stacks started to appear at auctions did the Redding librarians start to fully appreciate the value of their inadvertent cache of Twain association copies.

One of the most notable features of the Twain copies is their often frequent marginalia. As Cowan records, these books “are filled with notes in [Twain's] own cramped, scratchy handwriting.” The Times reproduces a number of these annotations, and—notably—provides a fascinating interactive look at some these books and the notations scribbled inside. Here, for instance, is Twain marking up a poem by Browning with accent and stress marks for reciting aloud. Twain could be very scathing in his remarks on other authors, even those whom he knew personally. In the preliminaries of Civil War General Lew Wallace’s Autobiography, for instance, Twain pencilled a harsh literary judgement: “The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction. I wonder what ‘Ben Hur’ [Wallace's novel] is like.” All in all, this is a tantalizing sample of Twain’s marginalia, and a worthy and impressive way of marking the Twain centenary on the Times‘s behalf.

Richard Altick’s Books Online

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Readers may be interested in knowing that Ohio State University, where the late historian of reading Richard D. Altick taught for many years, has placed several of his books online, complete and free-of-charge. They include the 1998 edition of his seminal English Common Reader, 1985′s Paintings From Books, and the 1987 reprint of The Scholar Adventurers. All of these are large PDF files, but it’s fantastic to see them online and available to anyone who wants to read them.

As part of its open-access policy, the Ohio State University Press has made freely available complete PDFs of over eighty other titles from its deep backlist, most of which are out-of-print and hard-to-find. Titles interesting from a book historian’s perspective include The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Table (1964), Jane R. Cohen’s Charles Dickens and His Original Illustrators (1980), and Peter J. Rabinowitz’s Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (1987).

Other discoveries can be made using The University of Pennsylvania’s fantastically useful Online Books catalogue, which has a handy list of newly indexed online books, updated daily.

Reading in Prison

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Released from prison on appeal after twenty years, John Kamara had trouble adjusting to life outside. Everything seemed to move on fast-forward, and the colours everywhere appeared shocking after the grey of his prison walls. As Louise Shorter, a journalist who followed his case, noted, Kamara seemed utterly consumed by the efforts he’d made to secure his freedom. Leaving prison, he took with him a single set of clothes, and many sacks full of the legal documents that he’d amassed over the years. It was as though he couldn’t free himself of the paper trail that had led to his release. Shorter recalls that, in the months afterwards, Kamara often did little else than “go over the case papers which had been the focus of his life for so long.”

Kamara’s turn towards paper had started early in his sentence. He recalls that he “started writing letters the day after” being sentenced—sometimes as many as thirty a day. By the time of his release, he had composed over 300,000 of them. Early in his term, he had discovered that he could obtain stamps in lieu of visits, and subsequently encouraged his family not to visit him. Voluntarily committing himself to solitary confinement, he dedicated himself utterly to his textual entanglements. He borrowed books from the prison library and read extensively. In the years after his release, he visited many of the places that he’d read about—Warwick Castle, Pompeii, the Louvre. Interviewing Kamara in his home ten years after his conviction was quashed, Shorter notes a copy of War and Peace, a book he’d discovered in prison, sitting “on the mantelpiece above the gas fire, mid-way through [its] seventh re-read.”

Many others have also testified to the power of books and writing in helping them survive psychologically during long terms of imprisonment. Paul Blackburn, who, like Kamara, had his conviction quashed after a prolonged fight with the justice system, calls written “words … [his] salvation,” crediting his discovery of them to autodidact fellow-prisoners, who, as his interviewer, Peter Walker, puts it, “both believed in his innocence and led him towards books.” Double-murderer Erwin James, who earned an Open University History degree in prison and ultimately became a freelance journalist, recalls that he survived inside “by maintaining a strong sense of self-discipline, using the gym regularly, reading, thinking, studying and working around those in power who acted as debilitaters.”

It was also in prison that Antonio Gramsci found his métier as a political philosopher. As Giovanni Tiso records, the prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial remarked on the Italian fascist régime’s desire that he receive a long custodial sentence, one that would “render that brain of his inoperative for at least twenty years.” However, as Tiso suggests,

Far from rendering his brain inoperative, prison made a philosopher out of Gramsci. No longer able to carry out his active political duties as communist leader, he resolved from the outset to occupy as much time as he could with systematic studying and writing. Indeed in the very first letter following his arrest, addressed to the family whose apartment he was renting at the time, Gramsci asked if they could please send him some of his books and purchase for him a cheap copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. (He pointed out to them that these books would have to be stripped of their covers in order to pass inspection.) …. Later, in prison proper, he was involved in constant negotiations concerning which books he was allowed to receive and keep, how much stationery he was allowed to have, and how often he was allowed to write to his family and friends.

For Gramsci, the struggle of acquiring a small personal library in prison was also a struggle for control—however minor—over his surroundings, a way of maintaining a sense of self separate from the prison walls that confined him, a demonstration that he remained connected to the world of ideas outside.


One of the more quietly remarkable documents in the history of prison reading appeared in The British Medical Journal shortly before the end of World War II. Entitled “Enforced Leisure: The Activities of Officer Prisoners of War,” it reported the results of a survey distributed by a captive RAMC officer to his fellow prisoners in Oflag VII/B. A. R. Dearlove, the author of the article, had clearly been able to keep up-to-date to some extent with medical research, despite his circumstances. He introduces the paper as a reply of sorts to recent “articles and correspondence in the medical press on prisoner-of-war-mentality,” observing that these “have naturally caused considerable discussion in P.O.W. camps” (406). Demonstrating that he and his companions in Oflag VII/B regarded themselves as part of that community of discussion despite their incarceration, and that they were still able to access the flow of information, Dearlove tried to account for how the average officer POW spent his time. The results emphasize how assiduously Dearlove’s companions devoted themselves to keeping their brains “operative.” Behind “sleep” and “eating,” they reported spending most time engaged in “study” (2 hours and 29 minutes on average each day) and “reading” (2 hours and 6 minutes per day), both of which occupied more time than “household fatigues” and “aimless gossip” (406). Summarizing the results, Dearlove merely commented that “everybody reads to a greater or lesser extent,” books and self-directed study being the main ways in which prisoners could feel like they were achieving something during their “enforced leisure.” From “reveille [morning bugle-call] onward,” he observed, the camp’s “study rooms are continually occupied” (407).

The officers of Oflag VII/B were obviously not representative of the British and American POW population as a whole. As Dearlove notes, nearly a third of the respondents either had university degrees, or had left undergraduates courses to enlist in the war effort (406). Nevertheless, other evidence, including the memoirs of former POWs, exists to confirm the ongoing and pervasive importance of books and reading in wartime prisons. Some of this evidence appears surprisingly early. Robin Fabel records that American prisoners of the War of 1812 held in Dartmoor were avid newspaper readers (184). More surprisingly still, documents show that a number of naval ratings paid money to rent books from the circulating library that another POW had set up using his own funds (184–5). Their British overseers, meanwhile, were somewhat taken aback by the high levels of literacy that the captive sailors displayed (184).

Memoirs published by veterans of the wars of the twentieth century also testify to the importance of reading in the POW experience. Alexander Jefferson, an African-American “Tuskegee Airman” held in Stalag Luft III late in World War II, recalls how central the prison library became to his existence in camp. Understandably wary of the racial attitudes of his captors (and those of some of his fellow prisoners), Jefferson seems to have found a safe space in the camp’s “fabulous library” and reading room, where he remembers reading “fifty or sixty different books” during his five months there (76). Nearly twenty years later, Everett Alvarez, shot down in the first wave of retaliatory airstrikes following the Tonkin Gulf incident, looked to books for a similar form of psychological relief. Bored, alone, and increasingly anxious, Alvarez remembers asking one of his Vietnamese captors, “Don’t you have something I can read? … I am used to reading a lot” (74). Supplied at first with propaganda material, Alvarez was eventually given a novel about a pilot, which he fell upon and read avidly, his loneliness and lack of other mental and emotional stimulation in captivity leading him to identify completely with the central character and his travails.

Jefferson and Alvarez, of course, are also outliers in terms of the POW experience. As members of the tiny minority who decided to relate their memories in book form, it is understandable that they would give books a certain prominence in their own narratives. Even still, the amount of space given to memories of reading in these books is disproportionately small compared to the amount of time each author apparently spent reading. Judging by Jefferson’s voracious rate of book consumption, for instance, reading must have occupied a significant portion of his time. Yet the camp library, though affectionately described, occupies less than half a page of his memoir. Part of this, of course, is due to the form of the memoir itself. Readerly expectations dictate that an author sets forth an interesting and varied set of anecdotes—extended recollections of prison reading hardly fit this criterion. Military memoirs, as Yuwal Noah Harari observes, can be unreliable guides to the actual lived experiences of their writers. They “are conscious retrospective attempts to shape the narrative of war,” and therefore hardly unmediated forms of memory (303). Moreover, as David Taylor, among others, has noted, writers of military memoirs often consciously or unconsciously distort their accounts to fit pre-existing ideals of heroism and vigorous (male) physicality (302). Prisoner of war narratives, particularly in the American context, are also subject to this process. The title of Alvarez’s memoir, for instance, is the uncompromising Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down Over North Vietnam. The prison-camp bookworm hardly conforms to this archetype, and thus we can understand his marginalization in published accounts.

So where is the history of prison reading in early twentieth-century conflict? One answer is that it lies in the administrative records of the agencies charged with distributing books to prisoners, or censoring them before they reached their new owners. Drawing on these kinds of sources, Rainer Pöppinghege has written a fascinating account of the reading habits of German POWs in the Netherlands, some of whom were allowed to borrow books from the Göttingen University library. Elsewhere, the evidence may lie in the diaries of former POWs, to the extent that these have survived. Preliminary examination of one or two in the Imperial War Museum indicates that there may be a wealth of material there waiting to be analysed.


A. R. Dearlove, “Enforced Leisure: A Study of the Activities of Officer Prisoners of War.” British Medical Journal (24 March 1945): 406–409.

Robin F. A. Fabel, “Self-Help in Dartmoor: Black and White Prisoners in the War of 1812.” Journal of the Early Republic 9, no. 2 (1989): 165–90.

Yuwal Noah Harari, “Military Memoirs: A Historical Overview of the Genre from the Middle Ages to the Late Modern Era.” War in History 14, no. 3 (2007): 289–309.

Alexander Jefferson and Lewis Carlson, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

Anthony S. Pitch, Everett Alvarez, and Everett Alvarez Jr, Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down Over North Vietnam. 1989; repr. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005.

Rainer Pöppinghege, “The Battle of the Books: Supplying Prisoners of War.” In Mary Hammond and Shaf Towheed, eds., Publishing in the First World War: Essays in Book History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

David Taylor, “From Fighting the War to Writing the War: From Glory to Guilt?” Contemporary British History 23, no. 3 (2009): 293–313.

Biographers and Marginalia

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Published in yesterday’s Guardian, there’s a long article by Hermione Lee on Penelope Fitzgerald’s personal library. Lee has already written on Edith Wharton, and makes fascinating observations about the contrast between Wharton’s and Fitzgerald’s book collections, and what each can say to a biographer:

The family archive contains many of Fitzgerald’s books. I wrote that sentence as flatly as I could, but in fact it makes my biographer’s pulse race wildly. This is the second time in my life I have been given access to such an extraordinary source of knowledge about my subject. I had the good fortune to look at all that remains of Edith Wharton’s magnificent collection, before her books went back to her American home, The Mount, and I made much use of them in my biography of her. Fitzgerald’s collection could not be more different. These are not beautiful, expensively bound, well-ordered books with high-flown dedications from famous fellow authors. No, they are the battered, treasured, much-used library of a working woman, mostly paperbacks, stuffed full of notes, marks, clippings and reviews, written all over from cover to cover in Fitzgerald’s clear, steady, italic handwriting. But these books are like Wharton’s much grander library in this respect: they provide the entry point to a remarkable writer’s reading life.

Fitzgerald’s books contain evidence of her life as a secondary school teacher; how she digested and books so that she could make them more palatable for her students:

These are the teaching texts of an enormously conscientious person, with (as she said of herself) an unshakable work ethic. There are plot summaries, chapter résumés, careful tracings of themes and patterns (as in her much-marked copy of Ulysses, keeping pace with what she calls Joyce’s “terrifyingly exhaustive mind”), cross-references minutely observed, and exam questions with her stamp on them …

Elsewhere, Lee quotes extensively from Fitzgerald’s often very funny marginalia—this is a portrait of an active, engaged reader often literally writing her life into the pages of the books she owns. The full article is here.

Call for Papers: “Who or What Reads Literature?”

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

The following CFP might be of interest to those working in the fields of reading history and reception studies:

Slovenian Comparative Literature Association

Who or What Reads Literature?

8th International Comparative Literature Colloquium

2nd–3rd September 2010, Lipica, Slovenia

Together with the Slovenian Writers’ Association, the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Department for Comparative Literature and Literary Theory (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana), the Slovenian Comparative Literature Association will host the 8th International Comparative Literature Colloquium, entitled Who or What Reads Literature?

The colloquium will offer three thematically divided (albeit interconnected and overlapping) sections. The first one will focus on the historical reader and reading practices, providing the cultural and historical contextualisation of reading practices, including contemporary ones. The second section will address various reading motives (the motif of the reader, of reading, of the library etc.). Finally, the third section will (re)consider the theories of reading and reflect on the future of the practice.

As such, the topic of the reader will complement the previous two festival symposia, which centred on the role of the author (The Author: Who or What Writes Literature? [2008]) and on the importance of literary intermediaries (the publishers, editors and critics, among others) in contemporary literature and culture (Who Chooses?, 2009).

The proceedings of the conference will be published in a special multilingual (Slovenian, English and French) edition of the Slovenian Comparative Literature Association journal Primerjalna književnost (Comparative Literature, indexed by A&HCI). A special book publication may also be considered.

As usual, the colloquium will form part of the 25th International Writers’ Festival Vilenica. It will take place in a village named Lipica, near Sežana, located in the beautiful Karst region close to Slovenian-Italian border. The colloquium will be held on the 2nd and the 3rd of September at the Lipica Wedding Hall.

Invitation. We would like to encourage everyone that might be interested in the topic to send us a paper proposal. The proposal (of no more than 250 words) should include the title of the presentation and the full address of the applicant. Please email proposals in English to; and proposals in French to The D-day for submission is May 10, 2010. The number of speakers being limited, we will be forced to make a selection of proposals arriving on time that will best suit the aims and purposes of the conference. You will be notified about our decision by May 24.