Clandestine Reading

In a previous blog, we looked at the ways in which readers display their intellectual credentials throught the use of conspicuous literacy. Here we examine some of the ways in which readers of the past have sought to disguise their uses of print.

A COMMON FIGURE in dystopian fiction is the disaffected citizen whose resistance to authority takes the form of reading. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith reads Goldstein’s Book voraciously behind closed doors. In Fahrenheit 451, Montag finds himself rescuing works outlawed by the book-burning regime. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred devours an illicit copy of Vogue in private.

Such fictional characters have long had their real-life equivalents, as punitive regimes seeking to stamp out unorthodoxy have sought to censor reading. One of the most vilified characters in his own day, but to today’s historian of reading one of the best loved, is the sixteenth-century Italian miller Mennochio. Carlo Ginzburg found in the transcripts of the inquisitors who tried Mennochio for heresy, how the ‘aggressively original’ reading habits that landed the miller in so much trouble seem to have originated in no known exegetical tradition but came from his own private imagination.

Menoccio’s outrageous reading habits led to the stake but some transgressive readers have been more circumspect. One historian observes how during the Portuguese Inquisition reformers sought to disguise heretical reading practices through the use of secret codes and false book covers; still others how at the time of the Reformation Spinoza’s works were smuggled into France from the Netherlands with false bindings. In a later era, the diary of one Polish dissident, Withold Gombrowicz, revealed how sensitive publications were routinely smuggled across the border with false covers at the height of the Communist regime.

Not all attempts to disguise reading matter have been engendered by political subversion.  After its initially modest print sales, the more discreet circulation afforded by electronic text was credited for the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Back in 2012, the author’s agent told the New York Times that women now had ‘the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles.’

Such forms of dissimulation have not always been exclusive to adults. In the face of prohibition, children have long been the most opportunistic of readers. In his survey of child literacy, Jeffrey Wilhelm describes ‘the litany of tricks’ through which one child found time for fiction reading in the face of adult prohibition: ‘flashlight in his bedroom, fake book covers, book inside a math book . . . even faking illness.’

All of which hints at a more profound disconnection between the accepted use of print and the inner lives of readers themselves. The circulation of print prescribed by those in authority, observes Michel de Certeau, ‘tells us nothing about what it is for its users’. Instead of occupying ourselves only with the intentions of the text and its distributor, de Certeau goes on, we must also look at how it is used. Among other things, this is a neat reminder of just how resourceful people can be. From the use of disguised texts by political dissenters to the child reading by torchlight, we should never forget the capacity of readers to misbehave.

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