- Eighteenth-Century Manners of Reading: Print Culture and Popular Instruction in the Anglophone Atlantic World by Eve Tavor Bannet
Bannet's latest monograph purports to explain how printing and teaching ideologies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world primed newly literate readers among the middle classes in England and Colonial America in the "manners" of print-world reading. To that end, she has chapters covering texts that offer instruction and advice in reading of different print fonts, syllabic and whole-word reading, grammar and word usage (chapter 1), reading aloud among small groups (chapter 2), and learning how to interpret literary texts (chapters 3–5). Later chapters are the most relevant to literary studies and to the theoretical issues that inform the study of eighteenth-century literary reading and writing practices. These cover a range of rhetorical, critical, and aesthetic texts, including periodical criticism (The Spectator [1711–1714]) in the main, as well as Johnson's The Rambler (1750–1752) and several other literary magazines of the period), philosophical criticism (Hobbes, Locke, Lord Kames, Alexander Gerard), criticism written in dialogue (Haywood, Sarah Fielding, Hanna Webster Foster), pedagogical works on public speaking (William Enfield, Thomas Sheridan, Isaac Watts), and finally a chapter on critical discussions on how to read "secret writing"—irony, satire, and sarcasm. The works from which she draws for much of her survey are familiar to scholars interested in histories of public speaking and rhetoric, literacy and education, aesthetics and literary criticism, and literary journalism.
A compelling hypothesis is provided for rereading these texts, which have so often been the subject of histories of "taste" and criticism, as evidence for a culture-wide and intergenerational struggle between writers who championed either "continuous" or "discontinuous" reading practices. On the one side, neoclassical and philosophical criticism advocated reading novels, drama, poetry, and other literary texts as wholes; on the other, a diverse group of writers including Shaftesbury, Vicesimus Knox, Johnson, Sarah Fielding, and Haywood advocated that the growing middle class of readers taste from the diverse menu of printed goods available in the literary marketplace without regard to form or textual closure. This second practice Bannet labels "miscellarian" after Shaftesbury's advocating "the Miscellaneous Manner of Writing" in his Characteristics (1711; 1732) as an aesthetic rebellion against the "Imposition of … strict Laws and Rules of Composition." While critics judged works as "wholes" with due "harmony," "simplicity," [End Page 214] and "regularity," miscellarians reveled in "Patch-work… Cutings and Shreds of Learning, … various Fragments, and Points of Wit … tack'd in any fantastick Form."
The argument for the rise of "discontinuous" reading does not fit in easily with the usual scholarly dialectic between manuscript and print. Instead, she argues (citing Stallybrass) that printing technology and the flourishing of print capitalism displaced classical reading practices conditioned to scroll book production, which encouraged a linear flow of reading, as documents were unfurled panel by panel. By comparison, the codex allowed readers to move through texts discontinuously, propelled by interests and intentions that might run counter to those of the book's author. There are probably good reasons to doubt the thesis that a fifth-century invention could have as profound an impact as Bannet (by way of Stallybrass) has proposed. Even so, Bannet partially convinces us that the growth of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century neoclassicism drove a strong conservative trend to embrace "continuous" reading strategies. She places the blame, here, not just on the usual culprits "the critics," but also more broadly on writers educated in the classics and philosophy. Over the course of a century, writers who advocated an aesthetic more appropriate to the scroll were gradually eclipsed by writers and readers who embraced the haphazard and inventive possibilities of print capitalism's embrace of the codex.
This narrative, whatever its merits, is embedded in the language of social and reading practices, which at times works against its own broader thesis that arbiters of taste were at odds with one another about how the print reader should consume printed works. To...