The Chronicle Review

Books Across Borders

December 17, 2012
Books Across Borders

Scholars of the history of reading have often considered 18th- and 19th-century Europe and America home turf.

But recent years have seen "a geographical broadening and a temporal broadening" of the field, says Leslie Howsam, a professor of history at the University of Windsor who is president of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.

"A few years ago, we would have said, The history of the book in Africa, that's way too hard to find anything about," Howsam says. The work of scholars like Isabel Hofmeyr, a professor of African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Archie L. Dick, a professor of information science at the University of Pretoria, have changed that.

As a student librarian and later, when he worked in South African public libraries, Dick encountered persistent stereotypes about the reading habits, or lack thereof, of South Africans who didn't belong to the white elite. "The underlying message was, much as it still is today, that there is no reading culture among working-class and common readers in South Africa," Dick says in an e-mail interview. "When I began investigating these matters I found that reading cultures had emerged at different historical junctures and that they operated in unusual ways, usually in spite of what elite authorities intended."

For instance, he discovered 18th-century Muslim readers "who read subversive messages written in Malay-Afrikaans, and later Arabic-Afrikaans, which could not be read by Dutch authorities" during the colonial era. More recently, during apartheid, books were buried in tins or burned to hide evidence from the security forces, he says.

For his new book, The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures (University of Toronto Press, 2012), Dick dug into all kinds of sources: slave-lodge records, women's organizations, army education units, records of political prisoners and circulation statistics kept by libraries, letters to newspaper editors, and interviews with librarians and readers.

One standout was an 1849 census of workers on mission stations. Meant to assess the labor force after the end of slavery, it "unintentionally became the first official source for working-class literacy statistics in South Africa," Dick says.

Such scholarly projects push the history of reading into more underexplored territory. Recovering individuals' and cultures' hidden reading histories has boundless possibilities. So does studying how readers read in an electronic environment, a subject that's attracting robust academic as well as popular interest. Fresh scholarly books on the subject include Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012), by Andrew Piper, an associate professor of German and European literature at McGill University, and From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), edited by Anouk Lang, a lecturer in literature at the University of Strathclyde.

Simon Eliot, one of the leading researchers in the field of the history of reading, wants scholars to keep pushing outward—beyond the codex, beyond the margins, into a swirling global history, still unfolding, of how we communicate. "Book history can't be national," Eliot says. "Books travel across national boundaries, and we have to follow them."