Studies of Home
9 January 2013
Abigail Williams (University of Oxford)
Sighs and settees: recovering the lost history of reading aloud in the eighteenth century


Ernst Rudolph's painting Reading A Book (wikipedia)

Ernst Rudolph’s painting Reading A Book (wikipedia)

What did we do before television?  Radio, of course!  But what did we do before Radio?  In the fifteenth century a new-fangled invention became all the rage although it would be several centuries before it truly became part of the domestic home scene.  Thus, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we see the rise of cheap books and new forms of literature such as novels.  Abigail Williams talk focuses on this point of time when reading aloud was not only common, but usual (reading silently was only just starting to be practised).  In the eighteenth century domestic leisure was enacted through book groups, tea table parties, amateur dramatics, male ‘punch parties’, and reading aloud.

Williams states that the literature on this subject shows that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was when silent reading should be seen as becoming more popular, yet Williams points out that many of the popular publications were of books intended for reading out aloud, such as Recitals.  It is, however, difficult to study or recover the lost history of reading aloud because people didn’t tend to talk about it much.  It was just the way reading was done, not that much different than tying up your shoes.  The usual evidence used by book historians also fails to provide much information of use.  Marginalia hand-written on the edges of books were rarely made when reading aloud to other people.  There was no need for it.  Williams paper looks at why reading aloud was common, the ways books were used, and how this reading process reveals a more sociable aspect to domestic life.

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