Now published . . .

Three Hundred Years of Robinson Crusoe (De Gruyter, 2022)

edited by Christine Haug, Johannes Frimmel, and Bill Bell

2019 marked the 300th anniversary of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The novel was an immediate success and was soon followed by imitators and translations. With the robinsonade, a new genre of adventure literature was born. These contributions examine the novel within the context of bookselling history, provide new interpretations, and shed light on its multifaceted adaptation history up to the twenty-first century.


Christine Haug
Einleitung: Daniel Defoe zwischen Journalismus, Pamphletismus und
Bestsellerproduktion im 18. Jahrhundert
Robinson Crusoe im Kontext der Frühaufklärung

Daniel Syrovy
On Literary Shipwreck before Robinson Crusoe
Anne Enderwitz
Buchführung, Wert und Fiktion in Robinson Crusoe
Hania Siebenpfeiffer
Robinson Crusoe im All: Daniel Defoes A Vision of the Angelick World

Oliver Bach
Daniel Defoes The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
und die Hallenser Aufklärung
Die deutschsprachige Rezeption des Robinson Crusoe

Wolfram Malte Fues
Robinson Crusoe und die deutsche Robinsonade
Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile
Post aus Felsenburg: Erzählmuster und Nachrichtenverkehr in Johann
Gottfried Schnabels Wunderliche Fata einiger Seefahrer

Peter C. Pohl
Die Robinsonaden von Campe und Wezel und ihre Poetik freier Zeiten
Wynfrid Kriegleder
Robinsonaden in der Literatur der österreichischen Aufklärung
Norbert Bachleitner
(Pseudo‐) Robinsonaden auf den österreichischen Listen verbotener
: Robinson Crusoe und die Kinder-und Jugendliteratur
Hans-Heino Ewers
Robinson Crusoe als Kinder- und Jugendlektüre: Ein kursorischer

Andrew O’Malley
Understanding Robinson Crusoe’s Place in the Literature and Culture of

Daniella Jancsó
Solitude and Survival: Crusoe and the Modern Poet
Bill Bell
Hermeneutic Castaways: Problems in Reading Robinson Crusoe

Further details available from De Gruyter.

Some Early Travelling Libraries

Bodleian Rare Books on Twitter: "#ABCbodbooks M is for Miniature Love tiny  books? We've got you covered: here's our smallest book (Ryder 832), a  German ABC published in 1971. At just 3
Trunk library of Charles I

TODAY the ability to store hundreds of books on a tablet or an e-reader has removed many impediments to far-flung reading. These days, anyone who has access to a mobile phone connection can download an infinite number of titles far from home. But in the past, the itinerating library, aimed mostly at the well-heeled traveller, was one solution for reading on the road.

Innes Keighren has written in a previous article about the libraries that accompanied explorers in the nineteenth century. In another item we looked at the ‘pigskin library’ that Teddy Rooseveldt took with him to Africa in the 1920s. But the travelling library has much earlier beginnings. Alberto Manguel reminds us that ‘Alexander famously kept by his army bedside a copy of the Iliad to give his campaigns classic lustre; almost a couple of millennia later Thomas Jefferson did the same. Both men,’ Manguel goes on, ‘imagined that Homer’s heroes would inform and justify their political campaigns.’

Two Seventeenth Century Examples

In The Tempest Shakespeare has Prospero confess that he prized his library above his dukedom and has the faithful Gonzalo provide his exile with reading matter far from home. There is plenty of evidence such fictional readers had their real-life counterparts throughout the centuries and a number of early examples of the travelling libraries of real readers from the seventeenth century survive. Although there is not much evidence that he used it on the move, Charles I was given a portable trunk library as a child in 1608 (pictured above). Tooled in gold and uniformly bound, the Prince’s collection, which includes a predictable selection of classical authors and standard theological works, is now held in the Bodleian Library.

Among the most impressive early examples is William Hakewill’s of 1617. Hakewill commissioned others for his friends of which several survive. A learned Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was a friend of the celebrated bibliopoles Sir Robert Cotton and John Bodley. In 1979, Howard M. Nixon identified four surviving examples of box libraries that Hakeswill gave as gifts to his influential associates. In each instance, Nixon found the contents and arrangement ‘approximately the same’. Hawkswill’s own (pictured below) is now held by The University of Leeds, and, like the others, is contained in a book-shaped trunk. Each decorative case has the catalogue ornately presented inside, and bears the arms of the recipient. While some of the individual titles are now missing, Nixon was able to provide a full inventory of each library’s catalogue. Given their pedigree, there are few surprises in the collections that Hakewill assembled. The major classics are well represented as are early works of theology, all uniformly bound.

Willam Hakewill’s Cabinet Library

Napoleon’s Campaign Library

For many of their influential owners, the personal travelling library served as entertainment and distraction from the rigours and boredom of the journey. For others, it was strategically important to the success of the mission. Alexander the Great’s campaign library had many later imitators. Among the most celebrated are the itinerating collections assembled for Napoleon who was a voracious reader with eclectic tastes, ranging from classical history to romance novels. In the year he became Emperor of France, he issued the following order to his librarian:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

Napoleon’s Campaign Library

During his exile on St Helena, the vanquished emperor found himself with more than enough time on his hands to satisfy his love of reading. Among the titles that he enjoyed the most were the works of Molière, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Macpherson’s Ossian. In his will, Napoleon bequeathed to his son ‘Four hundred books chosen from my library, among those I used the most.’ Sadly, this final request was never granted and his exile library was auctioned off in London in July 1823.

While, from its origins, the travelling library was associated with the privileged reader, in future articles we will be looking at some modern examples, including commercially produced select libraries for the relatively wealthy traveller as well as more generally available alternatives for the less well to do.


Reading and Resistance: John Mitchel, Fenian Convict

John Mitchel,first martyr of Ireland in her revolution of 1848,Currier &  Ives | eBay
John Mitchel in Custody

THROUGHOUT the transportation period, a number of gentleman convicts (referred to as ‘Specials’) made their way to Australia providing evidence of the vast range of literacies and competencies among the prison population. One class of prisoner, set apart from the ordinary criminal, was those serving out sentences during the periods of Fenian unrest in Ireland.

John Mitchel (1815–75), the son of a Presbyterian clergyman, entered Trinity College, Dublin at the age of fourteen. By 1845 he had earned himself notoriety as a journalist on the staff of the republican Nation and for his associations with the Young Ireland Movement. Three years later he inaugurated The United Irishman, where his editorials advocating armed struggle in the cause of Irish independence brought him to the attention of the British authorities. A central figure of the rebellion that year, he was arrested for ‘Treason-felony’ and consigned first to Spike Island, then Bermuda, and finally to Van Diemen’s Land, from whence he escaped to the United States to continue his career as a political journalist and editor.

The early weeks that he spent in custody ‘were passed in relative comfort’. On his arrival at the Dublin docks he was treated as a celebrity: awaiting his departure he signed autographs for the guards and was given preferential treatment and a single cabin. On his way to Spike Island he dined with the captain, several of the officers loaned him books, and the guards slipped political newspapers under his door. At Bermuda his cell was provided with two bookshelves, which the chaplain offered to furnish, and he was allowed ‘to receive any books I please from home’.

W. B. Yeats called Mitchel ‘the only Young Ireland writer who had a style at all’. Today the block at the Irish fortress prison on Spike Island, where he was held for only two days, is named in his honour. His Jail Journal is full of references to the many titles that he encountered on his way south and the responses they provoked. Mitchel is anything but a passive reader. He uses books deliberately to generate ideas: ‘One feels the value of even a very bad book,’ he wrote, ‘of anything, in short, that will help imagination and memory to take the place of the senses and of human converse, furnishing occasion and stimulus for thought.’ He is also one of the most situational of readers, passionate in his responses, using texts as stalking horses for his hatred of the British state and its colonial agents. Reading Macaulay’s Essays sets him off on a ‘ten pages. . . tirade’ and Alexander Burnes’s Travels in Bokhara leads to a seven-page attack on the abuses of British foreign policy in the East.

Having access to newspapers from Britain and Ireland affords him an opportunity to keep up with the fortunes of his fellow Fenian conspirators and, at the same time, to write long and passionate attacks on Britain’s geopolitical relations. At several points he remarks on the echo chamber of patriotic British journalism, bemoaning the fact that he has no access to the counter-narratives of the contemporary French press.

At times, Mitchel’s diary functions as a commonplace book, and is peppered with quotations from poetry–from Byron to Scott, Moore to Shakespeare–which he takes as relevant to his situation. The quotation of Ovid, Plato, and the Bible in classical Greek are among examples of what we might call conspicuous literacy, a rhetorical strategy that the disenfranchised educated classes often used to signal their resistance to those they regarded as lesser-educated authorities.

The Jail Journal is a highly performative piece of writing full of defiance and intellectual display. Mitchel’s command of languages ancient and modern and his high cultural repertoire are constantly apparent. Most contemporary British fiction, he sneers, would not satisfy ‘the loneliest captive, in the dullest jail, dying for something to read’. Some of the titles he comes across are ‘such offal that there is no use in . . . remembering their names’. More to his liking than the lowbrow taste of his captors are Shakespeare, Rabelais, Carlyle (his hero), and Plato, whose Politics he sets out to translate in captivity. Mitchel’s writing, and his many remarks about his prison literature, show him to have been a complex, sometimes contradictory, but always engaged reader.

While he has long remained a hero to those who have sympathized with the Fenian cause, in recent months the contrarian Mitchel has come in for some severe criticism: his views on slavery and his support for the Confederacy during the Civil War, have led to a recent revaluation of his influence in the wake of the BLM movement. Nevertheless, the Jail Journal, written before his entanglement in American politics, continues to be one of the most detailed and compelling accounts of the mentality of a gentleman prisoner in the period.

Bonhams : MITCHEL, JOHN. Jail Journal; or, Five Years in British Prisons.  New York: Office of the "Citizen," 1854.
First edition of Mitchel’s Jail Journal, 1854

On Not Reading

File:Crusoe 2 (by Paget).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

ALTHOUGH Robinson Crusoe tells us that he managed to rescue several books from the sinking wreck apart from his beloved bible, it is remarkable that, for the next two decades, these scarce commodities go without mention or even apparent use.

Books of course have uses other than reading, uses that would have been immediately apparent to some of Defoe’s early readers. In an age of muzzle-loading rifles, the availability of paper could be a matter of life and death: Crusoe could employ it to pack his shot and to prepare measures of gunpowder for rapid reloading, a technique that would come to save his life on more than one occasion.

And there were more mundane functions to consider: he could use paper to light his pipe, to wrap his food, and for use in the privy. Crusoe’s very account of his years on the island survive because they were written down. When paper was scarce, it was not unusual for the owners of books to write in the empty spaces they offered. The sheer materiality of things, so often overlooked by scholars, is everywhere evident on Crusoe’s island, and remained so in many other social contexts before and after. Whether in the recycled prayer books that convicts fashioned to make playing cards, flyleaves that provided a clandestine writing medium in prisons, or as safe containers for preserving family genealogy, books were never just texts for decoding, but also commodities for use. There are several humorous references to the use of books as bumf (‘bum fodder’) in the First World War. The name of the most famous trench journal of the war, The Wipers Times, and a letter from a soldier in the correspondence column of another (‘I like your paper very much but why print on it?’) are evidence of how the recycling of paper was part of everyday life at the front.

Throughout history, books have served as talismans, occasions for connection—between individuals and the new world and home—protection from alien social worlds, means of spiritual guidance, comfort. Printed paper had material uses as wallpaper, to line pie dishes, to light fires, for packing soldiers’ boots, for smoking. While for many literary scholars books are primarily regarded as carriers of linguistic code, mere receptacles for texts, they were in other words important as a form of real and symbolic capital. A ship’s Bible may have been a charm against disaster, for swearing testimonies, or for pledging allegiances. As we have already seen, private libraries have often allowed for the display of polite credentials. Uniformly bound, lining the walls of a dedicated study, as status markers they indicated that their owner has arrived socially.

In certain contexts, observes Leah Price, ‘a book’s material properties trump its textual content’. The fate of books is not always to be engaged by the reader’s imagination, but also to be ‘bought, sold, exchanged, transported, displayed, defaced, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, dispersed, discarded’. One aspect of the history of reading that we need to consider, therefore, is the existence of texts that were not even read. Lisa Gitelman argues that the history of not reading has largely gone ignored, ‘even apart from the histories of censorship, secrecy, abridgement, or illiteracy that we might imagine’. An attention to these and similar aspects can tell us important things about readers themselves, argues Gitelman, ‘readers with cognitive functions and psychic lives, readers who make decisions and manage their time, readers susceptible to boredom and prone to distraction’. Such remarks apply as well to the many British overseas who were outside the conventional world of literacy, those who either could not or chose not to participate in the kind of signifying practices about which others left historic traces.

Such are the ingrained assumptions surrounding nineteenth-century institutions and the rhetoric of education as to constitute what Harvey Graff has called a ‘literacy myth’. At bottom, argues Graff, the effect of that same myth was to reinforce the values and interests of a hegemonic culture that believed reading, and by implication right reading, was tied to notions of progress—personal, social, and economic—sometimes in spite of evidence to the contrary. In the famous words of E. P. Thompson, ‘the inarticulate, by definition, leave few records of their thoughts’. While traces left by prolific readers can be rich and plentiful, the silence left by others is deafening.

Roosevelt’s Pigskin Library

Roosevelt on the Smithsonian-African expedition

IT is difficult to believe that world leaders once had time for leisurely reading. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was surely one of the more bookish. Meditating on the intimacy that can exist between readers and their books, Roosevelt once asserted that ‘If a man or a woman is fond of books he or she will naturally seek the books that the mind and soul demand.’ Roosevelt was a demanding reader and books seem to have been for him one of the necessities of life, wherever he found himself.

Between 1909-10, he traveled as a member of an African expedition on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution. In preparation for the mission, his sister, Corinne, commissioned for her brother an extensive traveling library. To be housed in a bespoke aluminum box, over 50 volumes were carefully chosen before departure. Protected from the tropical climate, wrote Roosevelt, and the ‘blood, sweat, gun oil, dust and ashes’ of safari, the volumes were bound in custom pigskin which he later observed ‘grew to look as a well-used saddle looks’. His attitude to his portable library was nothing if not pragmatic. It had to be light enough, he remarked, to allow a porter to handle and in the rebinding process, blank leaves were removed and the margins trimmed to reduce their weight.

An early inventory of ‘The Pigskin Library’ was published in Roosevelt’s account of the mission, African Game Trails. As well as canonical works such as the Bible and Shakespeare, poetry was represented in anthologies of Tennyson, Browning, and Shelley. Lighter works included Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, no fewer than 5 novels by Walter Scott, and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Our Mutual Friend. He seems to have been particularly fond of the works of George Borrow, five of whose novels accompanied him to Africa. At the more serious end were Carlyle on Frederick the Great, Gregorovius’s History of Rome, and Bacon’s Essays.

Roosevelt sharing his books in Africa

Throughout his life, Roosevelt was an advocate for the individuality of reading. From Khartoum in 1910 he reflected on the Harvard Classics, the ‘five-foot’ series of great books that had been inaugurated in the previous year. The merits of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante, he remarked, were in no doubt. ‘Mr. Eliot’s list is a good list’, he continued, but it was impossible to make ‘any list of the kind which shall be more than a list as good as many scores or many hundreds of others’. What he really objected to was the Harvard President’s idea of a fixed canon, giving no account of the variety of individual tastes, historical changes, and cultural and geographical difference.

A voracious reader, the 26th President of the United States was sure to keep reading matter on hand throughout the rest of his life and, as time passed, his book acquisitions became ever-more extensive. Later he described his domestic library on Long Island:

The books are everywhere . . . . There are as many in the north room and in the parlor—is drawing room a more appropriate name than parlor?—as in the library; the gun room at the top of the house, which incidentally has the loveliest view of all, contains more books than any of the other rooms; and they are particularly delightful books to browse among, just because they have not much relevance to one another, this being one of the reasons why they are relegated to their present abode. But the books have overflowed into all the other rooms too.

From the intensive relationship that he had with his treasured box collection in Africa, to the assurances he found as he walled himself around with his later domestic library, Roosevelt is an important example of the generations of Crusoe’s successors whose intimate relationship with books has been a source of mental sustenance, wherever they might have found themselves.

President Theodore Roosevelt believed that education was important. He read a book a day to further his own education.

The Pigskin Library, now comprising 55 volumes, is today preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard.

Now published . . . . . .

Cover for 

Crusoes Books

Available here from Oxford University Press

***Winner of the British Association for Victorian Studies Rosemary Mitchell Prize 2022***

***Winner of the Australian Historical Association Kay Daniels Prize 2022 ***

Crusoe’s Books: Readers in the Empire of Print, 1800-1918

Bill Bell

with a foreword by Alberto Manguel

THIS is a book about readers on the move in an age of empire. It examines the libraries and reading habits of five reading constituencies from the long nineteenth century: shipboard emigrants, Australian convicts, Scottish settlers, polar explorers, and troops in the First World War. What was the role of reading in extreme circumstances? How were new meanings made under strange skies? How was reading connected with mobile communities in an age of expansion? Uncovering a vast range of sources from the period, from diaries, periodicals, and literary culture, Bill Bell reveals some remarkable and unanticipated insights into the way that reading operated within and upon the British Empire for over a century.

This highly original book takes the metaphorical journey as a key to reading itself and goes on to provide several fascinating field histories of specific readers and reading, from prisoners to polar explorers. Providing several brilliant analyses, Crusoe’s Books is striking in its erudition and its scholarship, offering a fresh reappraisal of the classical questions that have exercised historians of the book and reading.  Bill Bell’s book obliges us deeply to rethink the mobility of cultural hierarchies, the practices of popular literacy, and the uses of literature.”

Roger Chartier, Collège de France

Print is mobile, and where one reads matters. Bell’s compelling study of traveling readers disrupts easy generalizations about what print consumption entails.  Whether writing of emigrants or prisoners, explorers or soldiers, Bell brilliantly shows how reading could build community; offer escape or guidance to individuals; and complicate relationship to nation and Empire.  Full of surprising and telling examples about the range of available texts and the different, often unpredictable ways they were read, Crusoe’s Books is a major scholarly achievement.

Kate Flint, University of Southern California

“In this richly rewarding study of the dissemination of books through the contact zones that mark the edges of Empire, Bill Bell explores the waywardness of reading: the propensity of both free and unfree colonial subjects, Antarctic explorers, men and women at sea, and soldiers at the front to read athwart the cultural and political determinations of the libraries they assembled or the books they came across. Crusoe’s Books is a major contribution to the history of Empire and the history of reading.

John Frow, University of Sydney

In Crusoe’s Books, Bill Bell presents a unique and refreshing take on convict history combining exceptional scholarship with a gift for language and narrative style. Using the lens of literacy and observing its impact on the development of culture for those incarcerated or displaced, Bell presents the convict not only as the recipient of text, but as a reading subject. Bell traces the multifarious and embodied relationships of convicts to the printed word, placing this story firmly within an international context during a period of significant change in imperial history. The research is of high scholarly calibre and the writing is accessible and skilful. This is a beautifully crafted book.

Australian Historical Association


Jesus, . . . give me repentance" by George Cruikshank for Daniel Defoe's "Robinson  Crusoe" (1831; rpt. 1890)

SHORTLY after he is marooned on the island that will serve as his home for the better part of the next three decades, Robinson Crusoe fortuitously rescues three bibles before the ship goes down. Although it takes him a full year to begin to read the scriptures, this miraculous provision will prove to be the guiding principle of his life throughout the coming years. With the later arrival of Friday, he begins to teach his only companion to read, as together they embark on a series of discussions about what he takes to be the spiritual implications of its meanings.

In The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a sequel written by Defoe in the same year, the protagonist returns to his island to find the inhabitants he has left there in what he sees as a degraded condition. One tells him that, although they have endeavoured to commune with the Almighty, they have been unable because Robinson had neglected to leave a bible, remarking on its ‘inexpressible value . . . the privilege and blessing . . . to nations, families, and persons’. Before he leaves, Crusoe sets out to rectify the situation, part of a reconstruction plan that he intends will set the island on a higher moral footing,

A Miracle in Ceylon

Captain Robert Knox (1642-1720), by P Trampon.jpg
Robert Knox

Crusoe was certainly not the first to find a source of identity and stability in isolation through his encounter with the Bible. Homi Bhabha comments on a trope that has ‘played out in wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean,’ namely the ‘sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book throughout the history of colonial settlement.’ In fact Defoe was probably reworking an idea derived from Robert Knox’s 1681 An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, which made the explicit connection between his own discovery of a bible in the wilderness and the delivery of the Law to Moses:

The sight indeed of this Bible so overjoyed me, as if an angel had spoken to me from heaven; to see that my most gracious God had prepared such an extraordinary blessing for me, which I did, and ever shall, look upon as miraculous; to bring unto me a Bible in my own native language, and that in such a remote part of the world—where His name was not so much as known, and where any Englishman was never known to have been before. I looked upon it as somewhat of the nature with the ten Commandments He had given the Israelites out of heaven.

Like the delivery of the sacred tablets to the Israelites, Knox detected the divine hand in the event. The discovery of the printed word in such a strange and remote situation Knox took not only as a direct connection between the old dispensation and the new but as nothing short of an implicit commandment from God to propagate the gospel under strange skies.

The Pitcairn Bible

Stamp: John Adams and "Bounty" Bible (Pitcairn Islands) (Queen Elizabeth II  Issues (1957-63)) Mi:PN 22,Sn:PN 22,Sg:… | Stamp collection ideas, Stamp,  Postage stamps
The Pitcairn Bible

It was an idea that was to find its nineteenth-century apotheosis in the myth of the Pitcairn Bible. In the early years of the century it was discovered that the isolated island of Pitcairn in the South Pacific had been settled by a number of Europeans who had found refuge among the Polynesians after the notorious mutiny on the Bounty. Rumours of the colony began to percolate after its discovery in 1808, by which time it seemed that the chief mutineer, Fletcher Christian, had fathered, with Mi’mitti, a native woman, a child whom he named—in imitation of Crusoe—Thursday October Christian. Shortly after the community was rediscovered it was believed that, by using a bible that had been rescued from the Bounty, one of Fletcher’s surviving countrymen had taught the Polynesians to read and to observe the rites of Christian religion. In the 1830s John Barrow described the sensational myth of this theocratic paradise:

How the patriarch Adams contrived to instil into the minds of these people the true principles of religion and morality is quite surprising. He was able to read, but only learned to write in his latter days: and having accomplished this point, he made a scheme of laws by which he succeeded to govern his little community . . . The celebration of marriage and baptism were strictly observed according to the rites of the Church of England . . . He taught the children the church catechism, the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the creed, and he satisfied himself that in these were comprised all the Christian duties.

The Pitcairn Bible sits today in a glass case in the island’s museum as a sacred relic to the foundations of that little society. Its symbolic importance was commemorated in a postage stamp (pictured here) on the opening of the island’s post office in 1951.

Bibliocracy Now

Donald Trump and the Uses and Misuses of the Bible | The New Yorker

There has been a lot of talk in the past few years, particularly in the United States, about the revival of religious dominionism on the political landscape. There is nothing new about the insistence, by some, on the need to measure the constitution of a political state by an adherence to what they perceive as religious standards. Whatever we might think of such gestures, when the President of the United States choreographed a photo opportunity with a bible during the George Floyd protests in Washington DC last year, he was reenacting a familiar gesture. In its talismanic status, even for those who may never have read it, the identification of social identity with a sacred book is something that has permeated the long history of political culture. The German sociologist Max Weber, describing the tendency to regard the Bible as not just a spiritual and moral guide for its readers alone but the agent of a social and political mandate for a whole Kultur, called it ‘bibliocracy’. While Weber was referring directly to modern European protestantism when he coined the term, the regard for a nation or a sect as a People of the Book can be seen throughout the history of societies and their religions.

moses on sinai with the tablets of the law before the israelites by pietro da cortona
Moses with the Tablets

Performative Reading

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses by Eve Arden, 1955

IN A PREVIOUS blog we looked at the phenomenon of Anti-Social Reading, the way in which individuals use reading to fend off the unwanted attention of others. Here we consider the way that reading can be used as a form of self-invention through the deployment of performative literacy.

Certain regimes of culture and class, observed Pierre Bourdieu, require codified repertoires of behaviour in a game with sometimes simple, often subtle, rules. Such rules, concluded Bourdieu, must be followed if individuals are to earn and maintain their advantage in their chosen sphere of symbolic capital. Books and libraries, and the performance of reading, have long played important roles as such markers of distinction.

Two days after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, delivered the following panegyric: “He was a thoughtful man, deeply interesting and fiercely intelligent. He was a serious bookworm – which I am too – so talking about the books that we were reading was often, for me, a highlight of our conversations.” For many months in the Scottish press, Sturgeon had been characterized as a “bookworm” based on the regularity with which she publicly tweeted about the many books she had read. In her reading endorsements, Sturgeon has always been careful to avoid overly popular titles, her recommendations tending to fall on the worthy side of middlebrow. What Sturgeon has always performed in her declared reading choices, and with impeccable consistency, is a proud Scot, cosmopolitan in outlook, with a healthy regard for social justice.

A Victorian Common Reader

In an age that valued educational attainment, nineteenth century memoirists also advertised their personal virtues through their familiarity with an extensive literary repertoire, reeling off the books that had influenced them throughout their lives. This was particularly so in the case of the ‘labour aristocracy’ in Victorian Britain, skilled workers with social aspirations. What today we would call virtue signaling was the modus operandi of the nineteenth-century autobiographer, particularly those that set out to tell the story of their lives as journeys from rags-to-riches.

The Melbourne sheep farmer, George Russell, had begun life in Scotland as a humble ploughman, settling in Victoria in the 1820s. Like many he arrived with only a handful of books, mostly religious and with a Scottish emphasis. Because Russell was in the habit of entering the date of acquisition in the fly-leaf of each volume, we are able to catalogue his changing patters of book collecting in the years that followed. Over the next three decades, Russell’s fortunes were on the rise and by the 1850s he oversaw the building of a new homestead and briefly returned to Scotland to marry his cousin and to acquire a few necessities with which to furnish his new Antipodean home. Visiting the second hand booksellers of Edinburgh he bought himself a homely library, practical in nature and with a distinctly Scottish flavour.

After two more decades of financial success, Russell was to take his place as a member of the Melbourne elite. In the 1870s he ordered a consignment from the London bookseller Henry Southeran with which to furnish the library of his newly built mansion. Around the same time, he hired a Melbourne cabinet maker to fashion a set of imposing cases to display his new acquisitions. Unlike the 1850s books, the 1873 titles include a conspicuous number of uniformly bound sets of classical literature and British and imperial history. Thus can Russell’s desire to advertise his ascendancy from his origins as a farm labourer to a member of the colonial elite be traced through his book collecting. That this was a library for display rather than reading is evident in the fact that the volumes show little signs of wear and many remain uncut.

The Private Library of William Randolph Hearst...forget Beauty and the  Beast library, this one's gorgeous | Hearst castle, Castle floor plan,  Beautiful library
The Library of William Randolph Hearst

As Russell well understood, in a class conscious society an impressive library could confer instant respectability. Like the grand libraries of earlier aristocratic households, the personal library, for the great industrialists of the twentieth century, continued to be a place in which to perform their cultured status. Having made his fortune in the world of modern media, this was certainly important for a magnate like William Randolph Hearst, whose library in California is pictured here. For Hearst, who had made his millions through sensational headlines, it was important to advertise his cultured credentials, and one way he did it was through his spectacular library and collections.

Performative Reading Now

Books grunge wallpaper

Books Grunge Wallpaper

Those who no longer have the means nor the will to amass prestigious book collections can instantly and easily acquire them. For a mere £270, Books by the Yard will sell you “an absolutely beautiful, hand-picked selection of books bound in distressed leather to bring a feeling of elegance and antiquity onto any bookshelf.” Other companies cater for those who might want to create a less expensive bookish aura even without the inconvenience of actually dealing with dusty tomes. For £40 a roll you can display your intellectual pretensions with Book Grunge wallpaper (pictured here) that its manufacturer claims “showcases hundreds of books on shelves that will make an incredibly wonderful addition to any study, office, or any space in an educational environment.”

LYWYGG 7X5FT Bookshelf Backdrop Vintage Bookcase Magic Books Grunge Ancient Library Vinyl Photography Background Photo Studio Props CP-49
Backdrop Vintage Bookcase Magic Screen

Many academics will have been struck by the frequency with which interviewers insist on filming them in front of their bookshelves, presumably as a guarantor of scholarly integrity. Such gestures are the legacy of a time-honoured painterly and photographic tradition of the learned scholar in his study. In the age of zoom, academics frequently pose themselves in front of bookcases, a performance that some manage to achieve with varying degrees of success: a sparsely populated bookcase with intermittent pot plants can have the opposite effect. If in doubt, get yourself a Vintage Bookcase Magic Screen (pictured above) from the American supplier for a mere $15.60.

Ian Mowat | Art UK
Ian Mowat, former Librarian to Edinburgh University

One witty conceit that plays with such kinds of performative reading can be seen in this 1997 portrait of Ian Mowat, formerly Librarian to the University of Edinburgh. The absence of books and the dominance of the computer screen speak volumes about the way in which the reader finds himself at a moment of transition between the established realm of bibliographical librarianship and the brave new world of information technology. The refusal to play by the established rules of symbolic capital, combined with the surreptitious attention to the book on his desk, perhaps hints at what this busy administrator would rather be doing.

Diaspora and My Unpackable Library

Guest blog by James Yeku

We are delighted to reproduce this version of an online article in which Dr Yeku offers a poignant reminder of the loss of books as one of the many effects of the mobility of African scholars, not least when they travel permanently for education in the West.

WHAT does it mean to travel and leave your books behind with only the faintest hope of any reunion? I did not leave only Lagos behind in 2013 when I travelled to Canada for a doctoral education; like many people, I left my books too, a forced decision that still haunts today. But isn’t one of the often-overlooked conditions of migrancy the loss of books and personal libraries? Or to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, don’t the diasporic trajectories of the African scholar sometimes involve the loss of piles of volumes that may never see daylight again after years of darkness because of the collector’s willful displacement?

It does not have to be the case but, most of the time, certain economic anxieties impose choices on African scholars who seek knowledge outside the continent. His book collection in his new location is almost never complete; his library constantly vulnerable to absence. We don’t want to carry too much luggage when we travel, or we promise ourselves to retrieve them later, even if we never do. As genuine collectors and book lovers, when we pack our bags we want to take along the best of a collection that contains our memories and that catalogues our scribbles and communion with texts, but the uncertainties ahead often mean we must prioritize other symbols of survival, of arrival.

Some must wonder if African urban spaces even have leisurely subjects that worry about the many pleasures of books and bookstores, or that walk in the city as a practice of everyday life; whether there exist flâneurs that delight in sauntering around public spaces in which they encounter different objects. In their many instances of subversive loitering, the flaneur, in moments of walking contemplation of cities like Lagos, produces narratives that are often based on the ancient habit of collecting used books from the dusty grounds of street bookstores and highbrow book spaces. But what happens when, as academics, they have to travel abroad? How should we read the meanings encoded into the collecting of books, a process that is sometimes the pastime of cosmopolitan African subjects? And how must we unpack, or perhaps recover, “a library languishing” in the homeland, in the words of a Nigerian scholar in the US academy? Are there any meanings to the hastily discarded books in our personal collections just before we leave home to study elsewhere?

The art of collecting books and building a library are longings of the soul for many a woman of letters who leaves home to study abroad—often permanently. And many of leave behind books so meticulously packed after many years of sentimental collecting. So, with a stab to the heart, we are forced to forgo the cherished texts collected over the years, together with the memories, histories, and attachments they evoke. And the economic calculus that determines what we must pack remains long after we have settled in our new location and faced again with a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder, in Benjamin’s memorable phrasing. “Thus is the existence of the collector.”

In his 1931 short essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Speech on Collecting,” Benjamin explores readers’ relationships to their books, using the occasion of unpacking his many books from their boxes to offer insights on a reader’s possessions and on the art of collecting itself. Being then “at the threshold of forty and without property, position, home or assets,” Benjamin assigns usefulness and agency to his books as they provoke critical reflections through the process of unpacking them. The “chaotic memories” that is the passion of the collector overwhelm the room, with memories of cities and bookstores, of bookshelves at conference venues, of the disorder of used books on the streets of Ibadan or Accra. The ownership of these books, the most intimate entanglements that one can have with objects, invites us to disappear into them. Not that the books possess us, but that we own them sufficiently for the renewal of the self, or our existence each time the moment of packing and unpacking reveals itself.

Of course, like Benjamin I speak here of my own close scrutiny of books and the social facts that organize our relations with, and memory of, them. Although when Benjamin notes that the acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money, I would think there is a class dimension to book buying and the ability to transport hundreds and thousands of books to the West when one has to leave. Our libraries are unpackable because of the forces of capital, something to which the bourgeois class is impervious. My meditation chiefly applies to the, mostly, young scholar who leaves home for the first time to study in the West. Unable to pack all of his books or any of them for that matter, he sets out on a journey of knowledge, with gaps and silences in his personal archive screaming from behind; with his best books left behind, so are the memories of his collecting and collection. Benjamin is right when he says “the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner”, in this case, as it loses its owner to another location.

Unpacking is not just a symbolic ritual of remembrance and performative identification with books, therefore, but is also a site of loss, of rememory and affective belonging. But as we disappear into new collections and memories in the West or elsewhere, the markings of the past yet unfurl themselves to us. In new editions that contain emendations. In new copies that remind us of past annotations. This too is chaos. One wonders if the few among us who are truly able to leave home behind do indeed leave their books too. We may say then that unpacking never ends. And we never can truly unpack a library that was once never indeed packable.

What happens when African scholars travel for education in the West? One of the many costs of this mobility is the loss of books, and we need to talk about this more. So, having collected and accumulated more books by now, my colleague whose library is still languishing in Ibadan will probably gift his once-prized possessions to an institutional library. For now he must continue to contemplate how his books must be unpacked.

James Yeku is Assistant Professor of African Digital Humanities in the Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in LawrenceOne of his recent journal articles explores questions of textuality, bibliography, and materiality in literary digital humanities. James is the author of the collection of poems, Where the Baedeker Leads, out in fall 2021 at Maweni House Publishers in Toronto.

The Strange Afterlives of Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe - Wikipedia

FOR over three centuries, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe has engaged some of the most influential literary and philosophical minds. At the same time, few other fictional texts have provoked so many idiosyncratic readings. J.M. Coetzee, who attempted himself to rewrite the classic, thought about the many ways that Defoe’s book had been encountered over the generations. Coetzee has the castaway describe his readers as a cannibal horde, waiting for an opportunity to consume him, gnawing at ‘the very substance of truth.’

Rousseau’s Crusoe

One of the most influential early attempts to tame Robinson Crusoe is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile; ou de l’Education, his 1762 work on model education. Rousseau recommended the novel as the exemplary text for his hothouse pupil for whom it would constitute ‘his whole library’. Divested of its ‘irrelevant matter’, according to Rousseau it would furnish his pupil with a fund of literary material, ‘both for work and play.’ As an emblem of the solitary life, the novel would teach the child independence of mind and self-reliance. Thus would Émile be encouraged to dress and act, to imagine himself, as Robinson Crusoe, but only after the abridged narrative was ‘disencumbered of all its rigmarole’. More crucially, it would be stripped of its religious content.

Rousseau intended to adapt the novel in line with this prescription but never did. It was left to one of his German admirers, Joachim Campe, to fulfil the ambition in his Robinson der Jüngere (1779-80). In accordance with Rousseau’s prescription Campe was to render the novel down to what he saw as its narrative essentials, at the same time supplementing the story with many pedagogical lessons for his child readers, not least to correct one of the central problems for educators, namely Robinson’s disobedience to his parents. While there is no indication that Defoe intended it as such, through the influence of Rousseau and his best-selling German disciple the novel had, by the early nineteenth century, achieved European-wide status as a children’s classic.

Pocket watch - Wikipedia

Marx’s Pocket Watch

Compelling as it remained for educators, the novel was soon finding favour with social  commentators, many reducing it to a tale about Protestant self-reliance and the rewards of labour.  ‘Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists,’ remarked Marx in Das Kapital, ‘let us take a look at him on his island’. What results is one of the most willful readings of the novel, Marx’s forceful rendering of Crusoe as homo economicus causing him to employ strategies of both supplementation and redaction. Like Rousseau, Marx relegated the significance of the religious content, divesting it of the providentialism that drives the narrative: ‘Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.’ So central had Crusoe’s piety been to Defoe’s intentions that it is difficult to imagine what kind of work Marx might have been imagining. Transforming Crusoe into a model capitalist, Marx’s Crusoe is portrayed as an early devotee time-and-motion studies:

This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him.

Defoe may have had Crusoe rescue many items from the wreck but a watch and ledger book that Marx finds were not among them. Could Marx have misread it? Was he relying on a liberal adaptation, or simply a bad translation? Did he just make up Crusoe’s inventory to suit his argument? Either way, Marx’s whole understanding of Crusoe as an emblem of modern industrial man was founded on textual details that were not included by Defoe.  Thereafter Marx goes on to rewrite the story of the solitary castaway fighting for personal survival in favour of a community of social beings

carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour-power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour-power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual.

Thus it was that Marx presented 1860s audiences with yet another radical reinvention of Crusoe, and one bearing little resemblance to the original.

Robinson Crusoe's Money; Or, the Remarkable Financial Fortunes and  Misfortunes of a Remote Island Community

Coleridge’s Semi-colon

While Rousseau, Marx, and others may have taken extreme liberties with the story, censoring and supplementing the text in ways that suited their purposes, one of the most unfortunate nineteenth-century readings was to be found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s praise for the novel in 1830, in which he offered fulsome evidence for Defoe’s stylistic brilliance. In the passage that describes Crusoe’s indecision about the rescue of money from the sinking ship, Coleridge transcribes his remark as follows: ‘However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvas’, a passage that Coleridge judged ‘worthy of Shakespeare; and yet the simple semi-colon after it, the instant passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself.’ The fact was that this exquisite punctuational detail did not appear in the text until almost a century after the original, introduced by an anonymous compositor as he prepared Charles Whittingham’s 1812 edition for the press, on which Coleridge was relying. As Irving Rothman concludes, Coleridge may have ‘appreciated Defoe’s . . . powers as a narrative artist’, but unfortunately ‘he just did not have the best text available to him when he read Robinson Crusoe.’ Coleridge’s glaring error is only the tip of a hermeneutic iceberg that has been haunted for generations by the bibliographical instability of its object of study.

Difficult as the novel is, perhaps the most strange and surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe are therefore to be found in the many postumous lives of the text. That there should have been so many idiosyncratic and at times wilful readings over the generations should not surprise us. It is a complex narrative, composed of a multitude of generic forms. Virginia Woolf, an admirer, suggested as much when she reflected how its readers, in seeking a key to its multivalence, often found themselves reducing it to what they believed were its bare essentials. For all its brilliance, the novel was for Woolf still fraught with unresolved hermeneutic mysteries: ‘However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books,’ this otherwise confident reader confesses that ultimately ‘a lonely battle waits us at the end.’

Robinson Crusoe, Student and Teacher - ENGL:2338:0001 Spr15 18th Century  British Literature Spring 2015 - UIowa Wiki