Scott B. Guthery. Practical Purposes: Readers in Experimental Philosophy at the Boston Athenaeum (1827-1850)

Guthery’s objective is “to inquire as to what the books Athenaeum members borrowed can tell us about the influence they had on their community” during the period 1827 to 1850 (xix, 17). However, his concern is not solely with who those readers were and what books they borrowed, but the connections between what they read, what they built, and what they wrote. He then goes beyond this to explore what the specific books they selected (and did not select) can tell us about what they sought and what they valued in that literature and how they thought about what they were reading and building, making this truly a unique contribution to the academic literature.

David Letzler. The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention

In this thought-provoking, well-written study, David Letzler combines computer science and information theory with genre criticism to propose an innovative way of theorizing reader response to the excesses often found in postmodern and some modern mega-novels. These are “the extremely literate, erudite tomes around which one must plan one’s life for a month” (1) by such authors as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, as well as James Joyce. Acknowledging that reactions to these novels range from passionate admiration to dismissive scorn, Letzler aims to delineate the ways in which they require modulation of readers’ attention and, in so doing, provide practical lessons for the information age.

Christopher N. Phillips, The Hymnal: A Reading History

Phillips divides the book into three sites of social reading: the church, the school, and the home, primarily in English society of the 18th and 19th Century. The church was a place of social identity where hymns were sung. James Martineau, a British Unitarian compiler and hymnist, recorded in his hymn book the dates that hymns were sung. In schools, the hymn book was a way of teaching reading to children. The hymn, “When I Can Read My Title Clear” was one of the most popular family hymns that helped children to read (106). The home was the place of the “private hymnbook” (185). A title such as Hymns for Mothers and Children traveled from one family to another because of its large size and many illustrations. Today, we would probably call this a coffee table book. Phillips points out that his chapters may be read separately or chronologically to give a sense of history. ☛ ☞

Juliette Wells, Reading Austen in America

Juliette Wells’s Reading Austen in America considers Austen’s influence outside of Britain, and it serves as a prequel to her earlier book, Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination (Bloomsbury, 2011). It complements other recent works such as Paula Byrne’s The Genius of Jane Austen (2017), Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen (2017), and Deidre Lynch’s Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees (2000). ☛ ☞

Jonathan Rose, Readers’ Liberation

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). ☛ ☞