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Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace

Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo

public libraries were not introduced specifically in order to underpin imperial expansion, it was nevertheless taken for granted that they were a small but important part of the machinery of Empire.

John Tomlinson has argued that national identity is an imagined identity, lived through representation. Through its performative and spatial dimensions the National Home Reading Union nurtured such an imagined identity. While not founded with overtly imperialistic aims, it nevertheless helped to sustain the sense of a national culture throughout the Empire. As normative assumptions about the Empire in the late Victorian and Edwardian era become more fully appreciated, the role of seemingly neutral organizations in the promotion of an imperial consciousness has become more fully recognized.

not only alleviate the intellectual isolation of readers in remote parts of the world but would also promote a sense of cultural communion throughout the Empire.

influencing the pursuit of reading as a social function, with the stimulus and guidance which our organisation provides, amongst our kinsmen overseas. This is as is should be. Nothing is useless which helps, in however small a degree, to link the nations of our Empire together in their intellectual, no less than their civic and social life.

Unlike some examples of imperial leisure practice, such as sport, which actively engaged colonized peoples in British pursuits, the National Home Reading Union did not seek to bring indigenous people within its social and cultural space but, by excluding native populations, enabled its members to retain an identity as members of a national imperial community in distinction to the ‘other’ of the colonized.

circles served both to consolidate social bonds and to nurture a sense of expatriate collectivism, the latter function being acknowledged by the Union: In connection with the Cape section of the NHRU, one should add that many of the letters from teachers and residents on farms, or in remote corners of the Colony, are of intense interest, and the reading circles are fast becoming bonds of union between town and country … the NHRU is really a University Extension movement on an immense scale, and may thus become a valuable factor in promoting that closer union of the Empire which we all desire. The nurturing of imperial consciousness was an inherent function of the Union in several colonies and dominions and it was aided in this by various women’s cultural organizations.

The loneliest reader, buried in the bush, will be kept in touch with the reading life of thousands of companions, through his monthly magazine … One of the privations which educated colonists often feel most is the absence of intellectual conversation for their children to hear. Yet there must be few colonial townships, if any, without men and women of intelligence and cultivation who can talk well, if anything occurs to draw them out and draw them together … It is hoped that the Union will also provide a pleasant link with friends and relatives in the dear old country. Young cousins on opposite sides of the world, following the same course of reading, would find they had topics in common when they sat down to the difficult task of corresponding with relatives whom they had never seen. We need to draw closer together, individually and nationally.

It is of particular interest in that its adoption in distant parts of the British Empire represented a process through which national social reading practices were dispersed beyond Great Britain and invokes questions concerning the relationships between reading, nationality and place.

Susan Belasco Smith’s work on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851–52) emphasizes the importance of serialization, as ‘a mode of literary production that creates within the text of the novel a web of relationships and experiences and exchanges, the false starts, distractions, and breaks that occur within the family circle’. Stowe, in Smith’s view, envisioned her readers as a friendship group which clearly included herself.

Our real-time group-reading of Little Dorrit took us, then, to some surprising places and stimulated us to embed it in a range of contexts. What resonance, if any, did this have in evoking new interpretations of the novel? I would argue that it accentuated aspects and perspectives often neglected by literary criticism.

The intimacy with her audience which Oprah has made her hallmark resembles ‘that particular relation’ which Dickens valued so highly, describing it to Forster in 1858 as ‘(personally affectionate and like no other man’s) which subsists between me and the public’

Nor does Dickens give much help to the memory-challenged, by way of cliff-hanging suspense endings, or recapping and synopses: he just expects a high degree of attention and an efficient memory. We modern readers have little training in the ‘art of memory’, and it was instructive that in this sphere the older members of our group out-performed the younger.

Was the close reading we were evolving – double-reading, back-reading to pick up clues, and collective retrieval – what Dickens’s first readers did too? We found ourselves drawn to that first reading experience, those readers we were keeping time with. What did they do with their monthly numbers; did they hold on to them or pass them round?

The serial publishing format encouraged a kind of kind of loyalty from its readers that could also transcend the absence of a story’s characters in the intervals between parts. Readers who persisted, becoming ‘loyal fans,’ lived on intimate terms with characters, taking them inside homes and even minds, sharing their acquaintance with others outside the pages, and so extending a kind of intimacy also associated with home.

In this small exercise in reading reception practice, and following Pierre Bourdieu’s dictum that ‘the meaning of a work (artistic, literary, philosophical, etc.) changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for the spectator or reader’

The role of the book club in the spread of democracy did not go unnoticed; hence its detractors. Collins’s outlaw group, with its predominantly female membership, poses a potential threat. Jennifer Phegley argues that Victorian family literary magazines ‘empowered’ women in encouraging them to ‘participate in a wide public debate that affected the intellectual lives of women for years to come’. Likewise, Ann Thompson suggests that the women’s clubs who read Shakespeare together in this period ‘constitute a kind of pre-history of modern feminist criticism’.

More formally, as the century ended, Societies for Mutual Culture and the National Home Reading Union, together with the reading rooms in Working Men and Women’s Clubs, all testify to the educational benefits seen to accrue from reading together.

By the mid-nineteenth century reading groups and clubs, which often started as distribution networks, had proliferated and sometimes diversified. Specialist societies sprang up for reading and appreciating the works of particular authors

Talbot and Carter’s categorization of Henrietta and its author illustrates how communal reading might work to standardize and reinforce judgements, with powerful implications in the relatively small literary world of the mid-eighteenth century, where for all the ostensible anonymity of many publications, a separation of the published product and the private writer was impossible.

these women are preoccupied with the effects of fiction on the young, the less-educated, and the lower class, readers distinctly ‘other’ to the Bluestockings. Commentary of this nature thereby defines the writers’ own community as an exception to the contemporary profile of the passive reader-consumer.

Even in its unedited manuscript state, the letter itself, as the medium of exchange for this epistolary community, must of course not be assumed to open a transparent window into the writers’ ‘true’ thoughts and responses.

Anne Ruggles Gere estimates that by the end of the nineteenth century, there were more than two million American women in literary societies,11 and Barbara Sicherman estimates that 75 per cent of US public libraries were founded by these types of women’s groups.

And in turn, each piece illustrates how ‘the private’ and ‘the collective’ cannot be considered as isolated phenomena. That is, we cannot arrive at a full understanding of private reading practices without at the same time considering the role of social relationships and institutions.

The Syntopicon enterprise had also required some assistance from mere mortals, diligent University of Chicago graduate students, and the article told part of their story: ‘The exhausted-looking people grouped about the books and files above have just finished a monumental intellectual task. They have spent five years and nearly a million dollars making an index of every important idea of Western civilization.’ The effort was originally budgeted for $60,000, but monumental tasks usually require monumental cash outlays.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, Adler’s pal and president of the university, was good at making broad gestures and sponsoring big projects. He was the man who had eliminated the university’s varsity football program, and then several years later approved of the federal government’s request to locate its Manhattan Project under the empty Stagg Field stadium – the site of the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

It is not entirely surprising that the Syntopicon project modelled itself on the great scientific achievements of the time – a sort of Manhattan Project for the humanities, if you will. In another early article and photo spread on the Syntopicon, a clean-cut young man weighs stacks of index cards, sorted by topic, on a laboratory scale, as if they are precious metal, and if there is ever a hall of fame for photo captions, this one will surely enter on the first round of voting: ‘Discussions of love by great authors outweigh sin and eternity’.

Hutchins’s utopian vision reached heights that would perhaps be matched only four years later on 15 April 1952, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, when the actual Great Books of the Western World set, published by Britannica, was rolled out at a lavish banquet attended by prominent educators, business tycoons, and social luminaries. There Hutchins declared: ‘Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage … Here is the faith of the West, for here before everybody willing to look at it is that dialogue by way of which Western man has believed that he can approach the truth.’

This quasi-spiritual and aggressively liberal element of Hutchins’s thinking is worth another look, I think, and one of the purposes of this chapter is to reconsider that element in hopes of reframing a crucial question: is commitment to the Great Books the enemy of progressive education (the scholarly consensus that has largely followed Dewey), or in fact a foundation for it? There is no doubt, at least, what Hutchins thought on that score.

"The ‘great ideas’ whose headstones are alphabetically displayed above the coffin-like filing boxes have been extracted from the great books in order to provide an index tool for manipulating the books themselves. By means of this index the books are made ready for immediate use. May we not ask how this approach to the content and conditions of human thought differs from any other merely verbal and mechanized education in our time?"

Most important was Adler and Hutchins’s advocacy of a seminar method that featured dialogue – not the teacher’s monologue. The style was Socratic in so far as the instructor’s task was to ask questions rather than give answers. Yet in rigorously insisting that the conversation be grounded in the written text, it can more appropriately be thought of as Talmudic, a method closely aligned to the close reading efforts of the New Critics who emerged in the academy during the 1920s and 1930s.

The principles of Shared Inquiry™, as they evolved after the 1960s, derive from the original vision of Adler and Hutchins, which mounts a Socratic challenge to traditional classroom lecture practice. Those principles suggest the uniqueness of the Great Books movement not only in terms of a commitment to lasting works of writing but also to radical pedagogy. To grasp what exactly is going on in the Great Books classroom or informal book discussion group as Adler and Hutchins envisioned, consider these principles of Shared Inquiry, as the practice is described in current Foundation literature:

  1. Read the selection carefully before participating in the discussion. This ensures that all participants are equally prepared to talk about the ideas in the work and helps prevent talk that would distract the group from its purpose.
  2. Support your ideas with evidence from the text. This keeps the discussion focused on understanding the selection and enables the group to weight textual support for different answers and to choose intelligently among them.
  3. Discuss the ideas in the selection and try to understand them fully before exploring issues that go beyond the selection. Reflection on the ideas in the text and the evidence to support them makes the exploration of related issues more productive.
  4. Listen to other participants and respond to them directly. Shared Inquiry is about the give and take of ideas and the willingness to listen to others and talk with them respectfully. Directing your comments and questions to other group members, not always the leader, will make the discussion livelier and more dynamic.
  5. Expect the leader to only ask questions. Effective leaders help participants develop their own ideas, with everyone gaining a new understanding in the process. When participants hang back and wait for the leader to suggest answers, discussion tends to falter.

In what might be taken as the symbolic passing of the torch from Mortimer Adler to Oprah Winfrey, a number of the Penguin classics chosen by Oprah for her Book Club have carried on their covers the seal with the words, ‘Recommended for Discussion by the Great Books Foundation’.

in the very early 1930s, academic news; their Great Books seminar was enough of a novelty both in substance and method that celebrities on transcontinental train trips began to stop off in Chicago to take a look. Among these were Hollywood stars Lillian Gish and Orson Welles, and Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post (and father of Katherine Graham, a student enrolled in the seminar). The most famous visitor of all was Gertrude Stein. At a dinner party one evening after Adler and Hutchins’s seminar, she began to grill the men as to what they thought they were doing. They said they were teaching the Great Books.

Stein asked what those were. Adler went downstairs and rummaged through his briefcase and brought the list of books back to the table. Stein looked at the list and began to rant about the mistake of teaching books in translation. The men insisted that the ideas were the thing, and that great writers survived even in bad translations. Then Adler went on the attack. He began to interrogate Stein. Voices rose. Stein finally ran out of patience, and ran around the table toward Adler, whom she cuffed on the side of the head with what Adler described as ‘a resounding thwack’. In his telling of the episode, Adler conveys how honoured he was by the punishment: not everyone could claim the privilege of getting ‘bitch-slapped’ by the queen bee of American modernism. Yet there is a kind of self-aggrandizing tone in his recollection of the words she spoke after the blow: ‘I am not going to argue any further with you, young man. I can see that you are the kind of young man who is accustomed to winning arguments.’ The evening ended when a butler came in to announce, ‘The police are here.’ The doyenne of the Parisian salon had ordered a tour of the city in a police squad car, and two captains were out front waiting to pick her up. Adler concludes: ‘The way I felt about her at that moment, I wished they had done it earlier and taken her for a ride Chicago-style.’

Rejection by one discipline, and active dislike for another, tempered his attitude toward higher education for the rest of his life, making this very public intellectual thoroughly anti-academic and in many respects anti-intellectual. Subsequent events at Chicago would only reinforce his dislike. One can only speculate whether later on, minus his resentments, Adler would have received a better hearing on those matters that he thought most important: (1) carving out adequate space for general education free from the pressures of disciplinary specialization, a kind of general education today that usually goes under the banner of the humanities, and (2) insistence on a pedagogy based primarily on text-based discussion rather than lectures.

He articulated this vision in his landmark book, The Higher Learning in America, published in 1936. There he said genuine education must counteract negative forces at work in the land: ‘overspecialization, crass vocationalism, academic disciplinary isolation … and anti-intellectual tendencies’.

By 1940, feeling roughed up by the curricular struggles that he had helped initiate, Adler was boiling with rage against academics everywhere. In a speech he gave in New York, he sounded a near-hysterical note when he said, ‘Until the professors and their culture are liquidated, the resolution of modern problems will not begin’ because ‘democracy has more to fear from the mentality of its teachers than from the nihilism of Hitler’.

The conditions were as follows: (1) there should be no vocational training of any sort; (2) there should be no electives, no majors or minors, no specialization in subject matter; (3) there should be no division of the faculty into professors competent in one department of learning rather than another; (4) no member of the faculty should be unprepared to teach the course of study as a whole; (5) no textbooks or manuals should be assigned as reading material for the students; (6) not more than one lecture a week should be given to the student body; (7) there should be no written examination.

In Liberal Schooling in the Twentieth Century, he wrote: ‘college teachers … should not be expected to carry on specialized research. They should win the honors and emoluments appropriate to their careers by their excellence as teachers, not by their contributions to the advancement of knowledge.’

To the end, ever the educational entrepreneur, Adler was better at burning bridges than he was at building them. Perhaps no educator of the twentieth century more completely embodies Joseph Schumpeter’s spirit of ‘creative destruction’.

When virtually all university presidents were being cowed and silenced by the McCarthy witch hunts of the late 1940s, Hutchins spoke out boldly for freedom of expression before a committee of the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1949, Hutchins defended his students who had noisily protested a bill in Springfield that would have made loyalty oaths mandatory for teachers and public employees. It did not help the university’s image downstate when this protest morphed into an impromptu integration of a drugstore lunch counter, with black and white students mingling dangerously together. Hutchins acknowledged to his critics that the students might have been ‘impolite’, but that ‘rudeness and Redness are not the same’.