- Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives ed. by Shafquat Towheed, Edmund King
Reading and the First World War participates in the recent digital turn and transnational turn in book history, which are also central to modernist studies. The editors, Shafquat Towheed and Edmund King, are involved in the UK Reading Experience Database, 1450–1945 (UK-RED), an online database that collects information about what people actually read. The introduction discusses related digital projects, both national (such as the UK National Archives’s ongoing digitalization of unit war diaries) and transnational (such as Europeana 1914–1918, which encourages the digital preservation of family archives). The international nature of the First World War is reflected in the selection of essays, with chapters on the experience of readers from and in Australia, America, Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy. [End Page 480]
In addition to these new perspectives, Reading and the First World War draws on approaches that have long been used in book history, including an interdisciplinary framework, and an interest in both high and low culture. Contributors include literary scholars, cultural historians, publishing specialists, and art historians. They pay particular attention to the wide range of readings experienced on the battlefront and at home—canonical texts, popular bestsellers, newspapers, poetry, and so on. This broad definition of “reading” owes much to the work of leading historians such as Jonathan Rose (one of the series’ editors). While Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) focused mostly on a tiny minority (officers who had been professional writers before the war), scholars have since studied the experience of ordinary readers. Most chapters in the collection contribute to “book history from below,” with a few exceptions. As Towheed points out, “elite” and common readers often shared similar reading experiences. He gives the example of “the watercolour card of a French soldier of the 41st battalion distributing copies of the trench journal L’écho du ravin,” which “was given to [Edith] Wharton after she visited that very battalion at the front on 23 May 1915” (92).
The formation of the literary canon is the central focus of the volume’s first section. In chapter 1, Jane Potter looks at the intriguing phenomenon of soldiers reading romance novels. These books “could provide soldiers with guidelines on patriotic behaviour, accepted gender roles and the place of reading itself within the war experience” (15). Alisa Miller then traces the origins of the trench poet canon, from formation to reception, but her chapter often suffers from a lack of evidence. For example, she writes that the necessity of “identifying the correct lessons . . . appears over and over in private and public discussions of the war” (48). There is no footnote to back this claim; surely, it is difficult to know exactly what people said about the war in their private conversations.
In the next section, examining the reading experience of professional writers, Max Saunders considers both Ford Madox Ford’s reading habits and the representation of reading in his work, particularly in Parade’s End. One of the most interesting passages is the discussion of Ford’s temporary amnesia, after he suffered a near miss from a high explosive shell. His concussion “left him in the position where he had to read the war (and himself) as he might have read a Jamesian novel, struggling to grasp his situation from mystifying episodes” (73). As Saunders notes, “reading may offer a consolatory oblivion of disturbing circumstances; but reading Ford, with its disorientating time shifts, place shifts to somewhere quite other and consciousness of the processes of repression, can present readers with new forms of alienation and anxiety” (73). Saunders could have stressed the parallel with the experience of modernity, which also led to forms of nervous overstimulation. Analyzing Wharton’s reading during the war in the next chapter, Towheed notes the absence of modernist fiction (with the sole exception of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the 1918 Egoist edition). As Towheed puts...