History 62 The History of Reading

Here’s the full draft of the syllabus for my spring course The History of Reading. I’ll polish it a bit more before I teach it, in all likelihood. I’m still looking for something on the 18th Century dissemination of the novel to go along with Warner’s Licensing Entertainment. There’s also loads of interesting specific topics excluded here that I plan to try and raise through the final research papers that the students will work on. Also there’s a very deliberate leap in the course from the 18th Century to the recent past. I’m using Isabel Hofmeyr’s transnational history of The Pilgrim’s Progress to point towards the dissemination of reading across time and space, and beyond that point I want to get quickly to a big spate of really good memoirs and commentaries on reading like Fadiman’s Ex Libris. So the industrialization of print gets kind of short shrift.


History of Reading
Spring 2007
Professor Burke

Books for purchase

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing
Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book
Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France
Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan
Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books
Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris
Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

This course is an examination of the closely interrelated histories of reading, writing and books, with a major focus on the so-called “Gutenberg revolution” and its impact on the publication, circulation and use of books.

Students will examine the roots and spread of reading, and wide variations in its forms and nature. The course is intended to explore why people across time and space have read, what the consequences and meaning of reading have been and might yet be, and even whether we should read. The course examines reading and publication as art, skill and technology.

Assignments for the course, in addition to regular attendance, engagement with the material, and participation in class, are two short papers, one longer research paper, and a regular weblog of overall reading experiences to be updated regularly throughout the semester.

Tuesday January 23


Orality and Literacy

Thursday January 25

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, short selection
Jack Goody, “The Construction of a Ritual Text: The Shift From Oral to Written Channels”, in The Power of the Written Tradition
Johannes Fabian, “Keep Listening”, in The Ethnography of Reading, ed. Jonathan Boyarin

Tuesday January 30

Henri-Jean Martin, “The Written and the Spoken Word” and “Speech and Letters”, in The History and Power of Writing

Reading Before Gutenberg

Thursday February 1

David Diringer, “The Book in Embryo”, The Book Before Printing
Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, pp. 27-65

Tuesday February 6

David Diringer, “Papyrus Books”, The Book Before Printing
Henry Petroski, Chapters 2-4, The Book On the Bookshelf

Thursday February 8

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, pp. 67-123, pp. 177-211

The Gutenberg Revolution and the Dissemination of Reading

Tuesday February 13

Febvre and Martin, The Coming of the Book, Chapter 1-4

Thursday February 15

Febvre and Martin, The Coming of the Book, Chapter 5-8

Tuesday February 20

Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing, Chap. 5-7

Thursday February 22

Adrian Johns, “Faust and the Pirates: The Cultural Construction of the Printing Revolution”, in The Nature of the Book

Tuesday February 27

Elizabeth Eisenstein, “The Book of Nature Transformed”, in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe


Thursday March 1st

Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms, pp. 1-61

Tuesday March 6th

Adrian Johns, “The Physiology of Reading”, in The Nature of the Book

Thursday March 8th

Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France


Tuesday March 20th

Henry Petroski, “Books and Bookstores”, in The Book on the Bookshelf
Nicolas Tucker, “Fairy Tales and their Early Opponents”, in Hilton et al eds., Opening the Nursery Door

Thursday March 22nd

William Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, Chapter 1
Deirdre Lynch and William Warner, “The Transport of the Novel”, in Cultural Institutions of the Novel

Tuesday March 27

Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan

Thursday March 29th

Isabel Hofmeyr, The Portable Bunyan

SECOND PAPER (Reading Memoir) DUE.

Reflections on Reading and Modernity

Tuesday April 3rd

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, pp. 213-306

Thursday April 5th

Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing, Chapters 8 and 9

Tuesday April 10th

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book

Thursday April 12th

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

Tuesday April 17th

Michael Dirda, An Open Book
Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness

Thursday April 19th

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris

Tuesday April 24th

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

The Future of Reading

Thursday April 26th

James Shapiro, “The Sad Demise of the Personal Library” in Salewak, ed., A Passion For Books
Elizabeth Eisenstein, “The End of the Book?”, in Salewak, ed., A Passion For Books
James O’Donnell, “The Persistence of the Old and the Pragmatics of the New”, in Avatars of the Word

Tuesday May 1st
Presentations of final paper research.

Thursday May 3rd
Jay David Bolter, Writing Space
Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture
Janet Murray, Hamlet On the Holodeck

FINAL PAPERS DUE by 5pm Monday MAY 14th. No extensions.

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19 Responses to History 62 The History of Reading

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    It’s a little scary how much this looks like *my* course in the history of reading that I’ve taught several times, and will teach again at the same time you’re doing this one. Here are the books I’ve ordered:

    Augustine, *Confessions*
    Miguel de Cervantes, *Don Quixote*
    Alberto Manguel, *A History of Reading*
    James O’Donnell, *Avatars of the Word*
    Walter Ong, *The Presence of the Word*
    Reynolds Price, *Three Gospels*
    Richard Rodriguez, *Hunger of Memory*

    Plus selections from several of the works you’ve also assigned, including Martin, Johns and Fadiman. I also have them read excerpts from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s *Ruined by Reading*, from *Madame Bovary*, from *Anna Karenina* from Dante (Paolo and Francesca), and a number of poems (loveliest among them being Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”).

    This is perhaps my favorite course to teach.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    On the eighteenth century: I think Michael McKeon’s *Origins of the English Novel* extremely useful, though it addresses your concerns only indirectly. But a reader who turns to McKeon after reading Adrian Johns is well-positioned to fill in the gaps. Two tremendously provocative texts to encourage thinking about these matters: Bakhtin’s great essay “Towards the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse” and the material on novels in Habermas’s *Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere*.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Hunger of Memory is a really great idea, I hadn’t thought of that at all, and I can’t think why. Hmmmm. I may need to go fiddle with the syllabus again.

  4. withywindle says:

    And the course I want to teach:

    Gutenberg’s Children: The Printing Press and the Renaissance Mind
    Year-long Course

    In 1450, a few years before Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern printing press, most Europeans were illiterate, and scribes wrote books laboriously by hand. Yet by 1550, millions of books had been published by printers throughout Central and Western Europe, and printed religious pamphlets had cracked the Catholic world in two. In 1650, printed newspapers and petitions had brought revolution, regicide, and the birth of modern liberty to Britain. The Reformation and the British Revolution were only the most dramatic examples of the profound changes that printing had brought to Europe’s culture, society, and politics: printing had also irrevocably etched the heritage of Antiquity and the new discoveries and procedures of science into European culture, created professions such as printer, editor, and journalist, and given states unprecedented means by which to project their authority on their subjects. Most dramatic of all, the press midwifed both a modern form of self—a Renaissance mind—born from the process of reading printed texts, and also new communal identities—women, nations, religions, and the Republic of Letters. During this course we will examine these topics, as well as the shift from orality to literacy, changes in memory, knowledge, and skepticism, and theories of the public sphere. Term papers are encouraged on all aspects of European print culture from 1450 to 1650, and on related topics between 1200 and 1800.


    Week 1 – Orality and Literacy

    Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy; Joyce Coleman, Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France, 1-33.
    Primary Readings: Homer, Iliad, excerpts; Virgil, Aeneid, excerpts.

    Week 2 – Oral Culture I

    Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms; Robert Scribner, “Oral Culture and the Diffusion of Reformation Ideas,” 49-69; Jonathan Spence, Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, 1-24, 132-161.
    Primary Readings: Martin Luther, selected hymns.

    Week 3 – Oral Culture II

    Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1-334.
    Primary Readings: The Bible, Book of Proverbs.

    Week 4 – Manuscript Culture

    John Dagenais, The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture: Glossing the “Libro de buen amor.”; Barry A. Windeatt, “The Scribes as Chaucer’s Early Critics,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1979), 119-142.
    Primary Readings: Juan Ruiz, Libro de Buen Amor, excerpts; Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, excerpts.

    Week 5 – History of Reading I – before Print

    Laurel Amtower, Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages; Paul Saenger, “Silent reading: its impact on late medieval script and society,” Viator 13 (1982), 367-414.
    Primary Readings: Petrarch, The Secret, excerpts.

    Week 6 – Printing Revolution I

    Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.
    Primary Readings: Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy, excerpts.

    Week 7 – Printing Revolution II

    Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 1-379; Eisenstein and Johns, “AHR Forum: How Revolutionary was the Print Revolution?”, 84-128.

    Week 8 – The Printer

    Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius; Sheila Edmunds, “From Schaeffer to Vérard: Concerning the Scribes who became Printers,” in Sandra Hindman, ed., Printing the Written Word, 21-40.
    Primary Readings: Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, excerpts.

    Week 9 – Intermediaries: The Editor and the Researcher

    Brian Richardson, Print culture in Renaissance Italy; Lisa Jardine and William Sherman, “Pragmatic readers: knowledge transactions and scholarly services in late Elizabethan England,” 102-24; Mark Eccles, “Thomas Gainsford, ‘Captain Pamphlet’,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 45, 4 (Autumn 1982), 259-70.
    Primary Readings: Thomas Gainsford, ed., Weekely newes from Germanie (December 13, 1623, Numb. 7).

    Week 10 – History of Reading II – after Print

    Anthony Grafton, Commerce with the Classics: Ancient Books and Renaissance Readers;
    Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 380-443.
    Primary Readings: Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, excerpts.

    Week 11 – Knowledge

    Peter Burke. A Social History of Knowledge from Gutenberg to Diderot; Ann Blair, “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64, 1 (January 2003), 11-28.
    Primary Readings: Christopher Marlowe, Faust, excerpts.

    Week 12 – Knowledge II: Science and Statistics

    Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book, 444-621.
    Primary Readings: Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, excerpts; Galileo Galilei, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, excerpts.

    Week 13 – Doubt

    Brendan Dooley, The Social History of Skepticism.
    Primary Readings: Michel de Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, excerpts.

    Week 14 – Conclusion
    Term Papers due.


    Week 1 – Literacy

    R. A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe.
    Primary Readings: The Bible, Genesis and Matthew.

    Week 2 – Reformation I: Protestants, Catholics, Jews

    Jean-Francois Gilont, The Reformation and the Book, 10-184, 264-291; Robert Bonfil, “Reading in the Jewish Community,” 149-78; Dominique Julia, “Reading and the Counter-Reformation,” 238-68.
    Primary Readings: Martin Luther, 95 Theses, The Bondage of the Will; Erasmus, On Free Will

    Week 3 – Reformation II: Popular Propaganda, Popular Protestantism

    Robert Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation; Richard Cole, “The Reformation in Print: German Pamphlets and Propaganda,” 93-102; Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain, 27-53; Göran Leth, “A Protestant Public Sphere,” 67-90.
    Primary Readings: Marprelate Tracts, Tract 6

    Week 4 – Print Culture in France

    Henri-Jean Martin, Print, Power, and People in 17th Century France, 1-41, 73-380; Natalie Zemon Davis, “Printing and the People,” 189-226; Christian Jouhaud, “Printing the Event: From La Rochelle to Paris,” 290-333.
    Primary Readings: Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, excerpts.

    Week 5 – Print Culture in the Netherlands

    Craig Harline, Pamphlets, Printing, and Political Culture in the Early Dutch Republic;
    Paul Arblaster, “Policy and Publishing in the Hapsburg Netherlands,” 179-98.
    Primary Readings: Joost van den Vondel, Lucifer, excerpts.

    Week 6 – The Birth of the Modern Individual

    Cynthia Brown, Poets, Patrons, and Printers: Crisis of Authority in Late Medieval France; Andrew Mousley, “Self, State, and Seventeenth Century News,” 149-68.
    Primary Readings: François Villon, selected poems.

    Week 7 – Structuring the Individual Mind

    Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought.
    Primary Readings: William Fulwood, The Enimie of Idlenesse (1568), excerpts; Abraham Flemming, A Panoplie of Epistles (1576), excerpts.

    Week 8 – Publicizing the Individual

    Lisa Jardine, Erasmus, Man of Letters: the Construction of Charisma in Print.
    Primary Readings: Erasmus, In Praise of Folly.

    Week 9 – Privacy and Print

    Cecile Jagodzinski, Privacy and Print: Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England; J. W. Saunders, “The Stigma of Print: A Note on the Social Bases of Tudor Poetry,” Essays in criticism 1, 2 (April 1951), 139-64; Steven May, “Tudor Aristocrats and the Mythical ‘Stigma of Print,’” Renaissance Papers 10 (1980), 11-18.
    Primary Readings: Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote, excerpts.

    Week 10 – Women Between Privacy and Publicity

    Susan Broomhall, Women and the Book Trade in Sixteenth Century France; Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain, 276-322.
    Primary Readings: Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, excerpts.

    Week 11 – Public Sphere Theory

    Jurgen Habermas, Structural Transformation, 1-102; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 22-46; Peter Lake and Steve Pincus, “Rethinking the Public Sphere in Early Modern England,” Journal of British Studies 45, 2 (April 2006), 270-292.
    Primary Readings: George Gascoigne, The Spoyle of Antwerp.

    Week 12 – News

    Adam Fox, Oral and Literate Culture in England, 335-405; Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain, 98-160; Henry Ettinghausen, “The News in Spain: Relaciones de sucesos in the Reigns of Philip III and IV,” European History Quarterly 14 (1984), 1-20.
    Primary Readings: Ben Jonson, The Staple of News, excerpts.

    Week 13 – Revolution and Liberty

    Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain, 202-275; David Zaret, Origins of Democratic Culture, 44-99, 174-265.
    Primary Readings: John Milton, Areopagitica.

    Week 14 – Conclusion
    Term Papers due.

  5. withywindle says:

    I tried to post a parallel syllabus–unsuccessfully, it seems. Too long for a comment?

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Just got hung up on WordPress’ always odd-moderation filter.

    I love some of the stuff on this syllabus also. More thought about some retooling.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Great syllabus, withywindle. I’m particularly glad to learn of the Sheila Edmunds and Ann Blair essays, which I haven’t seen but am going to find tomorrow. Of course, your students would rise up and slay you with that reading load, but you could go to your grave with a clear conscience. . . .

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    And Tim, while we’re pointlessly adding to what was already an intelligent and comprehensive syllabus, there’s this recent masterpiece: *The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes*, by Jonathan Rose. To be read in conjunction with a different kind of masterpiece on similar themes, Richard Hoggart’s *The Uses of Literacy*.

  9. withywindle says:

    What, you mean an inexperienced faculty-type creating a syllabus more suited for grad school than poor little undergrads? Perish the thought! — I did think of this as upper-level at an elite school, and even so, I would seriously consider cutting it down. Some of those books, say, could become excerpts. But that seemed like a fun first draft. (And don’t students need to slay their fathers, I mean their professors, in order to mature properly? Just call me Grendel.) I think Ann Blair is on Project Muse, which has all or most of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I’d been meaning to read the Rose. Will do so posthaste.

  11. Sdorn says:

    No Harvey Graff? Also see his syllabi over at the all-too-unused History of Education and Childhood site I put up a few years ago.

  12. Alan Baumler says:

    You seem to be focusing mostly on printing in the West, which probably works better. If someone gets interested in doing a paper on printing in China you might point them at

    Cynthia J. Brokaw and Kai-wing Chow eds. Printing and Book Culture in Late Imperial China, California, 2005

    Brokaw’s introduction is very good, and the volume refers to most of the recent scholarship.

    More important, you might take a look at Henrietta Harrison ”Newspapers and Nationalism in Rural China 1890-1929” Past and Present No. 166 (Feb., 2000), pp. 181-204

    It is a marvelous article that looks at how one provincial schoolteacher integrated print news (modern newspapers) with other forms of news (gossip and oral reports) by taking evidence from his extensive diaries. I think she talks more about these issues in her book, but the article is probably better for your class.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Alan, thanks. I thought about the literature on printing and reading in China, but I simply don’t know it. I’ll go look at the Brokaw. The Harrison also sounds interesting.

  14. Timothy Burke says:


    The big research paper will have about four or five major suggested possible themes, one of which is literacy and education. It’s one of the major topics that I thought about trying to include extensively in the design and decided instead to work it in through discussion. But maybe I need to fiddle with the syllabus a little on this point as well.

  15. Western Dave says:

    Ok folks, this is a threadjack. A colleague and I are working on developing a research project on how girls use technology so we can than apply these insights to our teachng. As we launched into our usual lament about the decline of literacy and what not, we looked at the document interpretaiton assignment for the tenth grade US history class that was on her desk. The assignment was focussed on nationalism and contained both documents and symbols. We had an “a-ha” moment. Our kids weren’t freaks, we were. In other words, from say 1920-1991 (Nirvana’s Teen Spirit video being one possible cut-off), U.S. society was uniquely literate compared to before and after. We don’t just mean knowing how to read, but relying on the written word for the vast majority of information transmitted. Just wondering

  16. jpool says:

    A bit tangential, but on the “death of reading” linguist Geoff Nunberg had an interesting commentary a couple of years back on NPR’s Fresh Air on the temporality of the phrase “curling up with a good book.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4208928

    This looks like a really nice course. I’ve been thinking about working up some version of this from an African studies perspective, using Hofmeyr, but also the recent work by Stephanie Newell and Derek Peterson and connecting that to either work on the history of education, or to anthropological work on communication/media/public sphere.

    Wow, Swarthmore students must be something, if you can get them through Ong, Goody and Fabian in the first week.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ll probably cut either Ong or Goody. Short selections.

    I’m toying with adding Peterson. But it’s pretty dense stuff.

  18. Gavin Weaire says:

    William Johnson “Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity” _American Journal of Philology_ 121 (2000) 593-627 (on Project Muse).

    Good, despite being another “Towards a Sociology of…” Not something you’d want on your syllabus, probably, but helpful as something to direct students to if they want to explore reading in antiquity some more for themselves. Also a helpful corrective to the “silent reading unusual” urban myth about ancient reading.

    It might actually be good for the classroom, now I think about it, because Johnson makes a fair bit of use of the analogy with reading set literary texts, and it strikes me that it’d be easy to get discussion started with that.

  19. eb says:

    A late recommendation: David Henkin’s City Reading, about the kind of text you might run into walking along the street in antebellum New York – advertising signs, posted bills, street signs, scraps of money, etc. – is worth a look. I’m not sure what you’d call that kind of reading. Public literacy?

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