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Harvard's history of reading

July 9, 2010 |  8:37 am


Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts declared Reading on the Rise after issuing a dire report five years earlier, Reading at Risk. This back and forth about the state of reading -- who reads, what they read and how they're reading it -- is nothing new, as a visit to Harvard's Open Collection on Reading shows.

The collection -- viewable by anyone with an Internet connection and browser -- investigates reading as a practice and a process, and its cultural role, through archival documents. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, writes, "The process of reading lies at the heart of our most intensely human activity, the making of meaning. ... The source material abounds, but it must be quarried out of locations that are inaccessible to most people -- manuscript diaries, commonplace books, correspondence, instruction manuals, library records, fictitious and graphic representations."

The anecdotal materials are among the most interesting. Herman Melville's notes, in pencil, on a poorly drawn whale? They've got that. The record of what Harvard students checked out of the library in the 1830s includes Henry David Thoreau -- who, like a good student, was reading a lot by Milton and about Milton. William Wordsworth's 1829 catalog of his library reveals that he had 43 books of poetry but 79 "books of amusement."

Is it all right that the esteemed poet collected so many "books of amusement" that he needed a category for them?

There was often pressure to equate reading with goodness -- as is shown by many of the textbooks in the collection, such as "The Practical Reader in Five Books" by M.R. Bartlett (1822), which proclaims on its title page, "Good Reading implies the exercise of good sense, an improved taste and fine feeling." The collection's papers from 19th century missions to the Dakota Indians present a grimmer version of teaching reading as a mechanism of cultural control.

But if reading is meant to impart goodness, the reader does not always play along. In his books, William James engaged in theological debates in the margins -- this and other marginalia in the collection show how much reading is a give and take. And as a reader, it can be like listening in to the ideas or process of others. Why did John Keats choose to underline what he did in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"?

And that same dew which sometime on the buds
Was wont to swell, like round and orient pearls,
Stood now within the pretty flowret's eyes,
Like tears, that did their own disgrace bewail.

The Commonplace Books in the collection also show the pleasure in reading. People would fill commonplace books' pages with passages from published works, often organized around a theme or idea (not unlike an analog, centuries-old tumblr). Serving as scrapbooks of ideas, they provide a window into what was important to the reader, into what Sarah Orne Jewett -- whose commonplace book is in the collection -- found interesting enough to copy and keep for herself.

Hat tip to Jessamyn West at Librarian.net for pointing out the Harvard Reading collection on her blog.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney reading an old book at Queens University's new McClay Library in Belfast, Ireland, July 6, 2010. Credit: Paul McErlane / AFP / Getty Images