Colclough, Stephen M. "Procuring Books and Consuming Texts: The Reading Experience of a Sheffield Apprentice, 1798." Book History 3 (2000): 21-44.

Empirical study of reading: here, a single case history from 1798. Note richness of research context (66 endnotes!), suggestions for further reading (Essay II...?).

Some contexts for questions: source of reading; act of reading

  • literacy context > family, church, political circle, etc.
  • incentives to reading (unaided, friends, teachers, etc.)
  • implications for literariness
  • range of reading
  • popular vs. canonical reading
  • modes of reading (story, aesthetic, imagery, affect, empathy, etc.)
  • self-implications


Historical dimensions of reading -- depends on what you want to know, but consider:

  • Social-moral-political dimensions of reading; threats and promises
  • Class, status, gender, location of reader
  • Sources, distribution of reading matter
  • political context, censorship, etc.
  • Role of aesthetic dimensions (plot, form)
  • Literary / sub- or non-literary problematic; the canon
  • intensive / extensive reading
  • regard for author


Figure 1; Figure 2.1; Figure 2.2; Figure 3; Figure 4

notes from article; page numbers cited within text notes and queries
Joseph Hunter (1783-1861), age 15 at time of diary; middle class (21-22); apprentice cutlery maker, dissenting minister, became deputy commissioner of public records. Diary of events, mainly reading; focus is on 1798 diary kept while an apprentice. 88 texts read in part or whole in 1798 (38, & note 38); and mostly modern, recently published (39). Why important: see final paragraph summary.

check Oxford DNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) and other references on Hunter (note 3); what education?


Where does reading come from?
Books borrowed: mainly from Sheffield Book Society (subscription), 38 borrowed (33 read); other books: a few read in situ (24) [source of books: Figure 1]. Note high cost of publications, including newspaper, Iris. (25).

compare book prices with average wages. Godwin's Political Justice example.
Newspaper Iris, led Hunter to read James Montgomery's The Whisperer (Montgomery edited Iris) (24). Essays written in prison; later suppressed by the author. For Montgomery see DNB entry (older version: reproduced). Whisperer published under pseudonym, Gabriel Silvertongue. Book available via Internet at U of A.
Began to borrow from Chapel book society: 70 vols, and 22 subscribers; but didn't always read what he borrowed (26) [Figure 3]  
Reading fiction: e.g., Castle of Otranto, and Castle of Mowbray -- looking for Gothic (26). note catalogue listings by title -- will be significant for Jane Austen.
Sheffield Book Society: Hunter borrowed mainly fiction and periodicals, plus travels and history (28-9). Largely contemporary materials (30). Did not borrow theology, but read some texts or heard them read from pulpit (29). But books were expensive, especially geography and travel, and could only be borrowed (30). [Figure 4]  
How books were read
Pressures of time on reading: having to read volumes in wrong order, or leave a book unfinished (31).
what is continuity in reading? cf. Sven Birkerts "shadow life of reading"
Importance of reviews in Monthly Review, etc., to alerting Hunter to books he wanted to read, would propose to the Sheffield Book Society (32-3). Monthly Review on the liberal side; note extensive extracts usually provided in reviews
"Jacobin" reading discontinued at Society, against Hunter's wishes (33-4). "Jacobin" problems: Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine begun July 1798
Hunter influenced by reviews in magazines, but not dominated by them; Hunter sometimes disagreed (35). But his own reviewing process follows pattern of magazines (35-6).  
"Unlike Anna Larpent, who was twenty-five years his senior, Hunter did not express a censorious view of novels and enjoyed them to the full without placing them within a purposive reading program." (35) and note chains of influence, e.g., obtaining Radcliffe's Travels
Hunter also responds to pictures, such as that of Pennant, or Strawberry Hill in Ireland, out of his growing interest in Walpole, author of Castle of Otranto (36). Pennant, illustration from Hindoostan (1798); Strawberry Hill: print from Ireland, Picturesque Views of the River Thames (1792), Vol. II, facing p. 94.
Applies comments of Williams's Tour in Switzerland on a spirit of inquiry to Sheffield rather than political situation (36-7). Example of how Hunter's reading rather at odds with how we might infer reading taking place from contents of book. (see note 56: reception fallacy). Williams is referring to Berne. The sentence continues: "while, therefore, the peaceful labourer of the glebe enjoys a kind of privileged protection, every prudent method has been adopted to dry up the turbulent source of national wealth which springs from manufactures or commerce" (II, 227)
August 10 1798: read for perhaps four hours during the day, a little in the morning; over lunch; and three hours in the evening (37). compare to use of media now?
"Silent reading was the dominant rather than the only reading practice in which Hunter engaged." (38) reading revolution?
An active reader, transcribing, summarizing (38); "interrogative" (39). Copies passages from Iris into a commonplace book (25). "Intensive" reading? -- "autodidact project " turning him from apprentice to leading intellectual (39). Reading mainly contemporary books (39). how far his reading is impacted by political context (cf. Anti-Jacobin, etc., 33-34)

Document prepared October 29th 2004 / updated March 10th 2011