Wittmann, Reinhard. "Was there a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?" A History of Reading in the West. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Eds.). Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. 284-312. Summary Wittmann's discussion of the reading revolution discriminates between two different modes of reading: intensive reading is close and repetitive reading of a very limited canon of works. The extensive reading mode engaged a much broader range of titles, genres, and readers. Equivocating a bit, he writes "[c]learly, there was not a rapid and comprehensive substitution of the traditional approach to reading for a more modern one." But he continues with "[f]rom then on, more extensive reading habits came increasingly to be the obligatory and dominant cultural norm; traditional intensive reading was increasingly regarded as obsolete and socially inferior" (286). To demonstrate the changes which comprise this "reading revolution," Wittmann looks at the readers, noting which groups changed and how; describes the mode of reading prior to, and after, the revolution; discusses the explosion of a passionate interest in reading in the general public and contrasts this with the traditional modes of the elites; and then looks at changes in reading tastes and the book trade, as well as the remnant institutions of reading societies and lending libraries. Wittmann describes three classes in the world of readers. First were the traditional elites, comprised of the ruling class and their primary lackeys: bureaucrats, official scholars, and clergy, who fought the new trend in reading from beginning to end, and who "condemned reading as a socially useless diversion" (301). One view of recreational reading put it in the same category as masturbation. A second group was comprised of the bourgeoisie: these were merchants, guild-masters, high-ranking craftsmen, and entrepreneurs, who saw reading variously as a means of social advancement, the teaching of necessary virtues, as being emancipatory by expanding personal horizons, as a means of self improvement by education in necessary knowledge and skills, and as a means of constructing a social identity as a group. This "rational" reading program became, at the end, a moral duty for the bourgeoisie. The third class of readers were drawn from the general public, beginning with those who had been known to the traditionalists as "unruly readers." The unruly reading included elementary reading of chapbooks, almanacs, and simple devotional texts. Another significant group, if for no other reason than what their behaviour portended, was comprised of those folk who provided services for the upper and ruling classes, and who emulated their reading behaviour. They particularly liked sympathetic and empathetic works, such as novels, and could be found reading them anyplace and anytime leisure was available. This type of reading was anathema to both the ruling elites and the bourgeoisie, but it became the prevalent form in spite of resistance. Wittmann, giving some "best-guess" figures, notes that toward the end of the eighteenth century the absolute number of readers was still not large, but in relative terms it was much larger than it had been and was certainly sufficient to trigger the shift toward reading as a universal skill. In concert, simple technical advances in publishing such as clear, clean, regularized typefaces, and less ostentatious, less bulky, more transportable and cheaper books made it possible for the less wealthy to avail themselves of these new works. Although Wittmann reserves judgement on just how much reading societies and lending libraries may have contributed to the advancement of reading among the lower classes, they did contribute to the expansion of skill and subject matter for the wealthier. Aiding and abetting this movement by the lower classes were a number of authors, such as Richardson, Rousseau, Klopstock, and Goethe whose works were occasionally able to so confound unsophisticated readers that they found it difficult to discern the protagonists in the books from those in their own lives which, at least in the case of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, resulted in a wave of suicides. These authors, and others like them, developed followings or communities of which each was the nexus. The book industry, noting the shift from a feudal, barter economy to a mercantile, money economy, quickly aligned itself with the money side as well as with the new potential market. The collaboration between these three groups, combined with social factors such as increasing urbanization, was more than sufficient to overthrow both the traditionalist authoritarian program and the rationalist program of the bourgeoisie. Critique Several problems become troublesome as soon as Wittmann's assertion that there was a reading revolution is examined; perhaps all of them might be eliminated if the term was clearly and unequivocally defined. Wittmann begins his essay with an anecdote about Johann George Hinzmann, who suggested that readers, rather than Jacobins, had brought down the ancien regime in Germany. This could have set the agenda for the essay, by limiting discussion to exactly how reading affected readers in order to effect such a change, as well as how many readers would have been necessary. Instead, Wittmann begins by addressing how readers effected reading, that is, the evolution from an intensive or unruly mode to an extensive mode, but this approach introduces new problems which are not addressed. The conversion from one mode of reading to another is not clearly mapped. Was it a differently felt experience for the reader? Did it arise spontaneously as an eruption from the collective unconscious of the underclasses, or was it provoked (more passively, was it accommodated) by changes in either the changing economics of the time, that is, the beginnings of a money-based market, by a new kind of writing provided by writers, or by a more permissive social order? Did a new consciousness in a wider public, created by a new personal form of reading, result in a new worldview which provoked or suggested a more articulated and convenient mode of exchange, or did this economic change come about independently and provide a basis upon which publishers could address a larger public with their wares, expand their market in effect; or were these two things coeval? There are more questions than these, but they all question whether the phenomenon called "reading revolution" was a driver of change, the driven result of a more extensive process, or something composed of both, in a synergistic fashion. Did new kind of authors such as Wittmann mentions, Richardson, Rousseau, Klopstock and Goethe, stimulate this reading revolution, were they the product of it, or were they perhaps both products of some other element again--certainly the new form of economic exchange permitted such a development and, perhaps it even encouraged it. But such encouragement could have occurred only if a prediliction or impulse in this direction on the part of both readers and writers already existed and only awaited an appropriate opportunity to surface, which begs the question again of where the "new" form of reading, let alone writing, might have derived. The fact that the writers mentioned were incredibly popular, the equivalent in their epoch of our superstars, suggests that they were responding, via their writings, to some pent up but well-formed inclinations and desires on the part of their readers; however, it could be argued that they created that desire by offering a new kind of pleasure, constellating as it were, a number of elements in the human psyche in a new manner to create an entirely new composite experience. That seems to run in the face of the fact that such folk had, in past times and other places, similar experiences via written and oral literature, and theatre. At first glance it seems more likely that Rousseau and others had a deep knowledge of their intended audiences, knew exactly how to appeal to particular aspects of their fancy, and did so in their writings. Wittmann concludes his essay by responding to the question of whether or not a reading revolution occurred and answers with a definite "yes," "in spite of all limitations." Certainly he's right, that a significant change in reading habits occurred, but whether the reading behavior was an active element or mere fallout from greater socio-economic changes is left unresolved. More subtly, did "reading as a human capacity" change, or was this ability simply given new scope? Did readers always experience something like a surrender of the self when presented with a written artifact which permitted the exercise of such a faculty, or was this a new capability, created by the synergy of changes in printing technology and economics? Wittman's essay does much to describe the milieu in which many changes were occuring, but he provokes more questions than he answers, including the question of exactly what he means by the term "reading revolution." He provides fertile grounds for empirical research.
Document created September 29th 2005