Edited by Rosalind Crone and Katie Halsey
2007 is an important year. It marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Richard Altick’s seminal work, The Common Reader (1957). Widespread recognition of the substantial contribution of this detailed study to book history and the history of reading is already evident in the conference, seminar and workshop announcements for this year. In The Common Reader, Richard Altick sought to uncover the reading practices of ordinary people in the past, largely focusing on the nineteenth century as this period witnessed the emergence of mass printing and mass literacy. The limits of Altick’s study were perhaps best expressed in his oft-quoted exclamation, ‘If only we had the autobiography of [a] pork butcher’(244). However, historians and literary historians readily took up this challenge. Such autobiographies have even been found and analysed, and an increasing wealth of studies exist that tackle questions about the common reader.
The opening of this anniversary year is an important moment to explore the ways in which the Reading Experience Database intends to extend such research even further. Or, in other words, to provide you with a sample of its contents in the lead up to its public launch later this year. In addition to more famous readers in history, we have been collecting important accounts of reading from the autobiographies and memoirs of working people. But, at the same time, we have also made some substantial efforts to look for evidence beyond these. Recognising that those working men and women who kept diaries and wrote of their experiences were a small minority, we have been searching for readers who did not keep a personal record. Even at this early stage, in this endeavour we have already enjoyed a small measure of success. The following is just a taste of what you might find in RED when it becomes searchable in the summer.
On 4 October 1834, Charles Bradfield, a foreman to a stable-keeper, went to the Bull Public House for breakfast. He gave his beef-steak to the servant to be dressed, and borrowed the newspaper purchased by the establishment for the use of their customers. As he was reading it, Thomas Mitchell came into the room and demanded the newspaper. Bradfield refused and a struggle broke out between the two men, during which Mitchell grabbed a knife from a table and stabbed Bradfield in the left breast. This fascinating account of a reading experience was found in the criminal court records for London, an invaluable resource for charting reading habits among ordinary Londoners. Evidence collected by social investigators in nineteenth-century London can be equally enlightening. For example, during the 1840s Henry Mayhew interviewed a London ‘sweet-stuff maker’ who purchased paper for wrapping sweets from stationary or old bookshops. ‘Sometimes, he said, he got works in this way in sheets which had never been cut, and which he retained to be read at his short intervals of leisure, and then used to wrap his goods in. In this way, he had read through two Histories of England!’ (London Labour and the London Poor, vol 1, p. 204.)
And on to RED news. Over the last couple months we have been continuing our crucial technical upgrade in preparation for our public launch this year. We have now developed a new, more user-friendly online form. We are currently in the process of stress-testing it and hope to open it to the public in early March. We will issue an announcement to subscribers as soon as it goes live. Alongside this, we have developed a new hard copy form because we want to continue to provide contributors with the option to download the RED form and return it to us either by post or electronically. To avoid confusion, we plan to put the hard copy form on our website at the same time that the online form becomes live. However, if you would like to begin using this immediately, please contact us and we can send it to you.
Furthermore, we have some more important dates for the diary as we fast approach our target launch time in summer this year. We have set aside a two-week period for a trial of the input and search functions of the database in April. For two weeks, a set number of invitees will have access to the database via a link and password that we will issue. Participants will be asked to complete a feedback form to help us improve the scope and functions of the database. If you would like to be included on our list of participants, please get in touch. Finally, we have set a provisional date for the public launch of RED. We hope that the database will go live and be available to everyone from 27 June 2007.
The RED community also continues to grow through publicity. In particular, we would like to thank Alison Beer of Hillingdon Libraries, Berry Chevasco of University College, London, Marcus Waithe of the University of Sheffield, John Spiers and Warwick Gould of the Institute of English Studies, University of London, and David Finkelstein, Warren McDougall, Joseph Marshall and the rest of the committee of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society for their kind assistance. Also, we would like to welcome and thank new volunteers who have joined the project. Their interests continue to be diverse and exciting. Not only have some chosen to focus on the memoirs and papers of famous readers, but others have offered material from private family collections and even some from their research on specific groups of readers. We would like to acknowledge again the great debt we owe to our volunteers and also to all those who have contacted us with various suggestions for the project and rich locations for material. We continue to be greatly encouraged by the interest and kindness of all and see this as a strong indication of how useful this resource will be to the research community.
We are also continuing to update the RED website regularly, especially our events page with details about relevant calls for papers, essay collections and forthcoming conferences, seminars and workshops. If you would like to advertise an event on the site, please contact us. We have also been updating our publications list and we have plans to upload a new page this month with reviews of recent publications in the history and theory of reading. If you have a book for review, or if you would like to review a particular book for the website, please get in touch.