How to Read a Book

Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer

by Roger Chartier
University of Pennsylvania Press, 128 pp., $12.95 (paper)


“Shakespeare created the world in seven days.

On the first day he made the sky and the mountains and the ravines
of the soul.
On the second day he made the rivers, the seas, the oceans as well
as the other feelings and gave them to Hamlet, to Julius Caesar, to Cleopatra, Ophelia and others, to reign over them with their children and later descendants for ever and ever.
On the third day…”
—Marin Sorescu

This hymn to the dead, white, male poet was written by the former minister of culture in Romania. It tells us something about postcommunism in Eastern Europe—and, by implication, about ourselves in the West. Such a poem could never be written in the United States today. Here we have postmodernism. And in its wake, like so many secondary storms stirred up by the general change in climate, we have jeremiads raining down on the humanities.

The decline of literacy, the end of the novel, the death of literature, the withering away of the intellectual, the extinction of the book, the collapse of the Gutenberg Galaxy—what doom has not been prophesied? Our cultural critics rend their garments and look out on a devastated landscape: texts deconstructed, canons dismembered, curricula demolished, and, dancing on the ruins, mad variations of cultural studies. If there is any escape, they say, we must get back to basics, begin again at the beginning, brush up our Shakespeare.

All roads lead to Shakespeare in the study of English literature, thanks in part to the original map designed by Samuel Johnson (in his Lives of the Poets). In French, owing to the similar work by Voltaire (Le Siècle de Louis XIV) all roads lead to Molière. But now, more than two centuries later, it is difficult to find clear patterns in the history of literature. Literature itself no longer looks like a succession of great books by great men, or “l’homme et l’oeuvre,” according to the old French formula for imposing order on it. It is not even a corpus of texts. Instead, it is an activity: readers making sense of symbols printed on pages, or, in a word, reading.

This approach to literature, generally known as reception theory, has become a banality among critics. But it has yet to prove itself, because we do not know what reading is when it takes place under our own noses, to say nothing of what it was in the time of Shakespeare, Molière, Johnson, and Voltaire. And another theory, generally known as deconstruction, has made texts appear so complex and contradictory that it seems hopeless to expect readers to extract any consistent meaning from them.

The study of meaning, however, stands at the heart of the “human sciences” as they are now practiced. Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, and literary critics—or kindred spirits from tendencies within each of those disciplines—begin from the premise that human beings are meaning-making animals. They argue that meanings are shared and that common notions…

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