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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 of meaningfulness belong to a general process, the attempt of everyone, the great unwashed as well as the great philosophers, to find some order in the world. Not that the social construction of reality, as this process is generally known, produces a clear and coherent world view. It involves endless conflict and negotiation, a matter of drawing lines, contesting boundaries, reinterpreting symbols, and rearranging experience into constantly shifting categories—in short, a struggle to construe meaning in society at large, which corresponds to the efforts of readers to make sense of books.

To find one’s way through a book is not, of course, the same as to make one’s way through life. Books themselves—Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Miss Lonelyhearts—warn us against making too much of the parallel. Yet the parallel can be instructive. The most persuasive version of it was developed by the French critic and philosopher Michel de Certeau, who understood reading as the appropriation of texts, or, as he preferred to call it, “poaching.” He argued that ordinary people, especially those at the bottom of the social order, are not helpless, passive victims of the mass media. They take what they want from tabloids and soap operas. They do so on their own terms, not those of the sponsors. And they use the same tactics in their everyday lives, snatching whatever advantage they can from a hostile environment. Richard Hoggart developed a similar interpretation of working-class culture in Britain during the 1950s, and Janice Radway has shown its relevance for understanding the way women read Harlequin novels in contemporary America.1

Despite the difficulties, therefore, a history of reading might unlock the general problem of understanding how people construe the symbolic systems made available to them by their culture. But how are those difficulties to be negotiated?

Because so few readers left traces of how they read—marginalia, commentaries, replies to inquisitors—historians of reading have had to string hypotheses from whatever looks solid enough to pass as hard fact. By studying iconographic evidence from many paintings and engravings, for example, Erich Schön has argued that the physical relation of readers to books changed significantly about two hundred years ago. Before the nineteenth century, pictures usually show readers holding books in their hands or balancing them on their knees, even when seated by a table. After 1800, the table becomes the main prop of reading. Readers lean over it, usually supported by an elbow, their rapport with the text reduced to movements of the eyes and the occasional touch of a finger.2

Whether this change in posture amounted to a “loss of sensuality,” as Schön claims, may be debated (I suspect that the concurrent change in paper, made by machines from wood pulp instead of by hand from rags, was equally important for getting the different feel of a book); but the corporeal element in reading certainly had some bearing on the cerebral. The shift from the volumen to the codex in the second century AD meant that people no longer had to unroll books to read them. Instead, they could jump around in a book by “leafing” backward and forward. The advent of printing—and with it the increased use of tables of contents, running heads, and indexes—brought that sort of experience within the range of increasingly broad sectors of the population. But in the last few years the computer has threatened to make the single page extinct as a unit of literature. Readers at computer screens contemplate an uninterrupted flow of text. They “scroll” through texts somewhat as their predecessors did under the Roman Empire, except they scroll up and down instead of sideways; and they do so by pushing buttons, pausing now and then to open a “window” and plunge into another stream of words.

Historians of reading have detected other fundamental shifts—from reading aloud to reading silently, from reading in groups to reading in private, from reading intensively (that is, reading a few books over and over again) to reading extensively (reading many kinds of printed matter casually and only once). But they have come up with so many counter examples and dissenting arguments that it is difficult to make out any overall pattern, to say nothing of resolving the fundamental problem: How did readers make meanings from books?

The most successful efforts to get a grip on that problem have come from the discipline of analytical bibliography. Roger Stoddard, a prominent American bibliographer, has warned literary critics that authors do not write books. They write texts, which are made into books by compositors, pressmen, binders, and other middlemen, who determine the form that literature takes when it falls into the hands of readers. The response of readers is shaped by typography, page design, illustrations, dedications, tables of contents, binding, and many other peculiarities of the book as a physical object.

John Locke stressed the same point three centuries ago, when he observed that the Bible would read very differently if it were printed as a continuous narrative instead of being sliced into tiny fragments suitable for quoting as chapter and verse. Drawing on Locke and a wide range of English literature, the greatest bibliographer of our time, Donald F. McKenzie, has argued that bibliography must expand into a “sociology of texts,” that is, a study of literature which will relate texts to their total environment, one that extends beyond printing shops and bookstores to the entire range of media and mentalities in a given society.3

A tall order! McKenzie’s own bibliographical work on the Cambridge University Press and on editions of Congreve suggests that bibliography can indeed trace the operations of “printers of the mind,” as he calls them, but it falls short of providing a full history of reader response. The most ambitious effort in this direction has come from the French cultural historian Roger Chartier, whose latest book, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer, illustrates the problems that such a history must confront.

Like McKenzie, Chartier draws his inspiration from sociology, particularly the work of Pierre Bourdieu. And like some opponents of post-modernism, he takes a strong stand against the so-called “linguistic turn,” or the tendency to interpret meaning, behavior, and reality itself as the product of discourse. By discourse, Chartier understands a closed system of signs, such as a body of texts, in which statements are deemed to be meaningful according to the way they relate to one another rather than by reference to the intention of an author or to any reality outside the boundaries of language. The current fashion of discourse analysis, as he sees it, is fundamentally misguided, because it treats non-discursive practices, such as everyday behavior, in the same way as messages printed in books. It confuses experience with texts and threatens to replace social history with literary criticism.

Reading, for Chartier, is precisely the sort of social activity that needs to be rescued from the literary critics. He describes reading as “appropriation,” a key term which he adopts from De Certeau and colors with Bourdieu’s concept of “distinction” in order to indicate a mode of behavior by which one social group asserts itself against another. When readers appropriate texts, therefore, they do not merely poach in a forest of symbols for whatever suits their individual needs and whims. They make sense of texts in a way that is characteristic of a particular group or “interpretive community,” a term that Chartier borrows from Stanley Fish.

All this sounds rather abstract, and it may put off those who have no interest in the nuances that separate one theoretician from another. But Chartier shows how much is at stake in sorting out and blending theoretical propositions by applying them to case studies. As in his previous work, he emphasizes the importance of studying the popular chapbooks known as the Bibliothèque bleue, which peddlers spread throughout France from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. They must not be taken as specimens of popular culture, he insists, for nothing could be more misleading than to look upon these primitive paperbacks, with their fantastic tales about knights and bandits, as if they were a window opening onto a world view. They are texts, not transparent expressions of a popular mentality, and the crucial question is not what themes they contain but how they were read.

  1. 1

    Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1984); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments (Chatto and Windus, 1957); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (University of North Carolina, 1984).

  2. 2

    Erich Schön, Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit oder die Verwandlungen des Lesers: Mentalitätswandel um 1800 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987).

  3. 3

    D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (British Library, 1986).

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