Friday, January 11, 2008

Who reads what when

A student came into my office this morning about travel grants and we got to talking about her work on women's reading habits in the medieval and Early Modern periods. One of the most serious problems in the subfield of book history is what a statistician might call "sample bias" but which in plainer terms is the epistemological problem of knowing whether our sources reflect any sort of historical reality. Once upon a time, there were no New York Times Bestseller Lists. The deeper you proceed into history, the fewer the surviving manuscripts and the greater the danger that the historical accident--what is saved, what isn't saved, what has personal significance to a family or estate but doesn't say anything about what the population at large was reading--fossilizes the anomalies and not the day-to-day reading of the literate class. (Class adding yet another complication to the picture, which I'll bracket for now.) There's also the physical survival of fragile books to consider. Books for daily use--as opposed to psalters, illuminated Bibles, and the like--were made cheaply. Anti-Stratfordians have always used the argument that Shakespeare couldn't be the author of Shakespeare's plays because no one found the kind of library that the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare would have needed to write them, but Stephen Greenblatt said in a class once that this loses its teeth when you consider that the sources Shakespeare would have needed probably would have originated in cheap octavos and quartos, meant to be read and tossed, not passed down in a will to his wife (along with his second best bed).

Enter the Internet. Amazon Wish Lists were probably good for telling us what people wanted to read (or wanted other people to think they wanted to read) but now facebook has an application that categorizes your books by what you've read, what you want to read, and what you liked or didn't. This links up to your friends' profiles and their friends profiles (and so on) to create a virtual web of books. You can click on a favorite book and instantly know who in your extended networks liked it. Standalone sites like provide the same deal. LibraryThing reflects the entire content of your personal collection. Most of this is, of course, linked to other vital information about the reader: location, sex, education level, and social networks.

So I think that being a book historian about a hundred years from now will be an infinitely easier thing than it is now. As we all know, content on the Internet is indestructible. Google is an all-knowing, all-seeing deity with a long and vengeful memory. I remember one time my husband and I were experiencing some bizarre server problems that let us access just about every other website besides Google, and it took a couple of refreshes on the New York Times website to convince us that nuclear holocaust hadn't really come to a town near us.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 11:58 AM