Deep reading the Victorians

11th December 2014

Under the title ‘Deep reading the Victorians’, Susan E. Cook, Assistant Professor of English at Southern New Hampshire University, has contributed three fascinating articles to the Journal of Victorian Culture Online about the print-vs-digital question and what it means in relation to engaging with 19th-century texts. Each one is well worth reading in full.

Part 1 challenges Nicholas Carr’s arguments in his book The Shallows, in which he worries away at the effects of digital culture on our capacity to read; as Susan Wood suggests in response,

It is easy to see the shift to digital as an epistemic break, but it seems to me that by focusing on this break exclusively we run the risk of flattening out the history of print.

Part 2 reports on an experiment in which the author read a nineteenth-century edition of a nineteenth-century novel that she had not previously read and described the experience. Her chosen text was an undated (but c. 1890) American Arlington Edition of Mrs Henry Wood’s ‘sensation novel’ East Lynne, and she concludes

I don’t doubt Carr’s argument about the cognitive differences between reading print and reading online, but while my own experience reading a nineteenth-century edition was more like reading a contemporary edition than I anticipated, it was not identical to that experience—nor would it be identical were I a nineteenth-century reader, without the same precise vision correction or the benefit of four incandescent bulbs in my reading room I enjoy today.  Print is not a static technology but one that changes in response to new technological pressures, new demands from readers, and new market concerns more broadly.  The shift to digital was a large shift, but it was not the only shift.

Part 3 describes a further exercise in which the author asked her students in a class on the history of the book ‘to complete a weekly Bleak House reading assignment by a) reading one chapter via our contemporary Penguin Classics edition, b) reading one chapter online or using an e-reader, and c) reading one chapter from one of the three first editions owned by our university.’

She concludes this third post:

Overwhelmingly, the students seemed to prefer reading Bleak House using the format with which they were most comfortable: the contemporary print edition… While this experiment cannot hope to replicate a truly authentic nineteenth-century reading occurrence, it highlights the degree to which the different forms of a book can impact one’s experience of that book. While one student summarizes the respondents’ shared belief that “it is important to have a physical connection with a book (holding a book and turning the pages) in order to have a mental connection with its content,” it is clear that material differences between print editions impact the reading experience greatly and inconsistently. The conditions of deep reading, in other words, seem predicated on comfort, habit, and a complex sense of how one relates to the material text itself.

Image: Clive Brook and Anne Harding in the feature film adaptation of Ellen Wood’s novel East Lynne, directed by Frank Lloyd, 1931.

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