- The Child Reader 1700–1840
In 1957, Robert Altick invited scholars to bridge the fields of book history and children’s literature studies, specifically inquiring into how juvenile literature influenced adult reading tastes. M. O. Grenby’s The Child Reader answers this call, announcing that the book’s purpose is “to provide a sound foundation for further study of the early development of children’s literature” (1). Since the history of the book remains an emerging subfield in eighteenth-century studies, Grenby’s monograph on children’s literature is an engaging and lively contribution to this area of scholarly inquiry. By examining children’s book usage in detail, Grenby offers new ways for fellow eighteenth-century scholars to imagine “attitudes to children and childhood, changing modes of reading, [and] the extent of the reading nation” (1). He also advances a unique approach to reading texts by including children’s book inscriptions and marginalia as a crucial point for inference. Since book-trade records often can be of only limited use in determining book consumption trends among children, marginalia prove to be an especially useful source. These charming anecdotes that punctuate much of the book—a pleasant corollary of Grenby’s use of source material—make for an absorbing read. [End Page 461]
Though writers wrote for children before the period it covers, The Child Reader is concerned with the establishment of children’s literature as a recognized and distinct form in the print market, and, in turn, the emergence of children as a discrete reading and consumer public. While the book’s scope covers the Restoration to the mid-nineteenth century, there is more focus on the period between the 1740s and the 1830s, when children’s books proliferated. Grenby makes use of diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, conduct books, and hard data for his readings, though he is careful when drawing conclusions, calling his sources “partial and problematic” (35). Fully acknowledging that these records cannot give a complete picture of the child reader, he still asserts that the “intermingling of sources and methods will help to expose the ideological work being performed, whether consciously or not, by particular representations of reading, and take us as close as it is possible to get to the reality of the eighteenth-century child reader” (35).
The book is divided into seven neat chapters: “Introduction,” “Owners,” “Books,” “Acquisition,” “Use,” “Attitudes,” and “Conclusions.” It is in the “Attitudes” chapter that the author is most imaginative in his interpretation and speculation, making some fascinating observations. Here Grenby makes his clearest and most significant contributions to current dialogues of reading history, asserting that children’s reading practices complicate the larger existing theories of reading communities. He confirms Robert Darnton’s view that eighteenth-century readers shared a material relationship with their books, though adding that Darnton does not consider how parents, teachers, and authors strongly discouraged children to develop this fetishistic association with texts. Adults held an instrumental view regarding children’s literature, which was designed to teach child readers self-discipline by comparison with characters in the book—a textual appreciation of the spiritual lessons taught. However, by insisting that children treat their books properly, as these were delicate and expensive commodities, parents encouraged children’s fetishistic relationship with their books; being seen with a book, but not necessarily reading it, denoted maturity. Parents fostered this attitude by using books to “de-child” the child, forcing young readers to act maturely through the proprieties of book use. Grenby attempts to refute Roger Chartier’s claim that “a respectful relation to the book, made up of reverence and obedience, gave way to a freer, more casual, and more critical way of reading,” arguing that this cultural shift does not entirely apply to children’s reading practices. Indubitably, children’s memoirs and marginalia indicate attitudes toward their books that border on the sacrilegious, but this expression does not appear to have increased over time.
The book does reveal some unexpected findings. There is evidence of the common practice of “cross-reading,” reading beyond age-appropriate and...