Jonathan Rose, Readers’ Liberation

Jonathan Rose. Readers’ Liberation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. viii, 208 p. ISBN 9780198723554. US$20.95.

Jonathan Rose has long excelled at finding an audience among the ordinary readers whose history he has spent a career tracing, and Readers’ Liberation should prove no exception. Engaging, accessible, and polemical, it is a perfect fit for Oxford’s Literary Agenda series and is likely to attract those drawn to his earlier works, from The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) to The Literary Churchill (2014). Written for and about “the general reader,” Readers’ Liberation argues that “reading can be and has been the most fundamental expression of human freedom, even in repressive societies.” Rose’s is a history of reading “built from the ground up” and is finely attentive to the diverse modes of engagement adopted by ordinary readers across time and place (vii). 

Among academics, too, and especially scholars of reading, this monograph deserves a wide reception. Its impressive and convincing span across historical eras and cultural contexts enables a comparative perspective beyond the scope of most histories of reading, which generally confine their focus to a particular culture, era, or demographic. And Rose makes a vital case for regarding readers as more than the passive products of ideological doctrines disseminated, elicited, or enforced through literature. This exhaustive and richly detailed history reveals even actively disenfranchised historical subjects—dissenters and dissidents, slaves, women, the incarcerated—as actors possessed of keen imagination and intellect.

Readers’ Liberation’s eight chapters address author-reader relations, resistant student reading, middlebrow genres and aspirations, marginalized readers, prison readers, media savvy and skepticism, “fayned” (fake) news, and the contemporary American educational system. These are unmistakably relevant issues, but Rose’s account also detects them at earlier moments of apparent crisis. This longer perspective generates a welcome sense of optimism: reading once promoted the intellectual independence and healthy skepticism necessary for education and liberation, Rose shows, and so it might again today.

Yet Rose does not ignore the threats to creative and critical thinking that still face ordinary readers. His final chapter, “Death to Gradgrind,” targets the flattened, instrumental reading practices that dominate K-12 education in the age of Common Core and proposes a vision for literary education that is indisputably superior, if rather utopian in the age of Betsy DeVos (188-89). Surprisingly absent here is any discussion of the 2015 PMLA roundtable on “Learning to Read,” which debated the flaws (and conceivable merits) of Common Core theory and practice across a series of nuanced, wide-ranging essays that might have both bolstered and challenged the program Rose proposes.  

The history of lay reading is long and unwieldy; Rose’s book is short and taut. Occasionally this results in a reductive treatment of opposing arguments. He provocatively contends that liberated readers today are more likely to thrive outside universities than within them, but muddies that contention with flippant, and occasionally uncharitable, discussions of thorny issues like identity politics, trigger warnings, and free speech. At other points, his arguments oversimplify diverse schools of thought, as in blanket references to groups like “the feminists” (145 and passim) or the charge that “Postcolonial critics tend to treat the transmission of Western literature to the rest of the world as a form of cultural imperialism, but it’s not quite that simple” (31). Although gently hedged by the word “tend,” this characterization still sidelines much recent scholarship that openly disavows such a perspective as simplistic and insufficient.

Still, Readers’ Liberation is an important and lively contribution to an emerging scholarship on the idiosyncrasies and inventiveness of common readers across time, and it provides an often beautiful defense of the power of free reading to open minds, cultivate ethical commitments, and plant seeds of resistance. At a time of intense pessimism about the ability of mass culture to expand rather than limit capacities for critical thought, Rose has unearthed a usable history in which we might locate models for a better future.    

Jesse Cordes Selbin
University of California, Berkeley

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