This social thought and commentary makes an argument for ethnographies of reading in an age of widespread literacy and global communication. The choice of method I propose is to start with the concrete practices of everyday readers. To situate this proposal in a specific ethnographic context, I draw on material from my research among a community of readers who spend time in a network of “footpath libraries” (vāchanālaya) in Pune, India. I then step back from ethnographic reporting to consider the topic of reading more broadly as an object of anthropology. I begin by situating the ethnography of reading in a range of everyday sites and historical locations. I next trace a condensed history of reading as a topic in anthropology—from its absence by definition in the foundation of a discipline that would study “the people without writing” to its emergence in the 1990s as a legitimate area of research. The discussion concludes with an analysis of the social reading of a “human-interest story” appearing in a Pune newspaper. My aim here is to show how the ethnography of ordinary reading can yield unexpected insights into larger issues—in this case, the changing social fabric of a once-provincial city in western India.


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pp. 1059-1083
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