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.

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