Towards a US-RED

RED personnel have recently returned from the 2011 SHARP conference in Washington DC. The conference was hugely enjoyable, and the RED panel session—featuring presentations from all of the current Global RED partners, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands—was very well attended. One of the most commonly asked questions we received, however, was why there isn’t yet a US-RED. As George H. Williams tweeted from the audience during the presentation, “Are there any American projects working on something like a Reading Experience Database? … If not, why not?”

It’s a good question. Obviously, the short answer is that no institution has yet provided the money, staffing, and technical infrastructure necessary to establish a Reading Experience Database in the United States. But everyone we talked to seemed to agree that this a necessary step for the history of the book in the US. What, then, might a US-RED look like?

The histories of reading in the geographical areas that now make up the US are almost unimaginably vast in number and variety. Tracking them systematically might well seem impossible: this kind of project, as Matthew Bradley put it in his review of RED in the Journal of Victorian Culture last year, “has in it something analogous to the idea of trying to draw a 1:1 map of the world.” So a US-RED might have to approach the task in pieces—particular themes, time periods, regions, or even authors would form the boundaries of the project, rather than the historical and geographical borders of the nation itself.

One possible way forward would be to examine the reading communities studied by Ronald J. and Mary Saracino Zboray in Everyday Ideas: Socioliterary Experience among Antebellum New Englanders (2006). The Zborays’ labours have revealed the richness of the evidence that these readers have left behind, and their footnotes and bibliography blaze trails to the archives that a US-RED would certainly want to revisit. An eighteenth- or nineteenth-century-focussed “New England RED” would have a well-defined geographical and temporal scope, and it would be able to encompass other areas of interest as well—Emily Dickinson’s reading, for instance, or the circulation of texts between immigrant and Native American communities.

Clearly, a whole world of possibility is open to the future developers of a US-RED. Developments over the next few years should reveal some of the contours and dimensions of that world.

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