'Social Life of Books': When reading was a group thing

BK1BOOKS16
Abigail Williams, author of "The Social Life of Books."

The Social Life of Books

Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home

By Abigail Williams

Yale University Press. 368 pp. $40.


Reviewed by Ernest Hilbert


We tend to imagine readers as silent and usually solitary beings, but they have not always been so. As Abigail Williams tells us in The Social Life of Books, 18th-century England was a heyday of communal reading. Books were read aloud, a pastime that grew enormously in popularity alongside rising literacy rates, the birth of commercial publishing, and the emergence of the professional writer.

Williams, who teaches at Oxford University, writes that "it is hard to imagine the excitement felt by previous readers at the possibility of gaining access to a new book." No longer did one require "formal and classical education, or the resources of a vast library" to be a reader.

Reading aloud made sense for many reasons. Candles were expensive, as were books. Before modern ophthalmology, those with poor eyesight could experience a book only if it were read to them. Once the domain of scholars, reading came to resemble something as familiar to us as families gathered around pianos or televisions in later ages.

Williams brings the reader into the amusing daily lives of English tradesmen, workers, merchants, clergymen, as well as their wives and daughters. She explains how reading became something of a "spectator sport." As with any type of performance, one had to be properly prepared, and this led to a surge of instructional manuals, further fueling what Williams designates "the great age of elocution," in which Britons of all backgrounds were gripped with "a near obsession with learning to read out loud."

The enlargement of culture arrived along with an opening up of architectural spaces. The emerging merchant class moved into larger homes, and those homes required libraries. A house with a library of any size very often served not only a family but an entire village.

At the same time, silent reading was no longer restricted to parlors and studies. Then, as now, newly portable volumes allowed travelers to while away hours, just as "modern travelers would take a novel, an iPod, or an iPad as a time killer."

The Social Life of Books

invites us to think about an era when increased leisure time worked with a widespread yearning for knowledge to change the act of reading. Williams' charming pageant of anecdotes, as revealed in diaries, letters, and marginalia, conjures a world strikingly different from our own but surprisingly similar in many ways, a time when reading was on the rise and whole worlds sprang up around it.

Hilbert is a Philadelphia-area poet and rare-book dealer. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.