Acts of Reading
Teachers, Texts, and Childhood
Beginning life at a conference held in 2007 at Cambridge University to celebrate the significance of the 18th century ‘genteel Englishwoman’ Jane Johnson and her ‘Nursery Library’ in social and literary history, this anthology of seventeen essays provides an eclectic survey of the history of what, in oversimplified terms, we refer to as ‘reading’. As the editorial introduction points out, the phrase ‘acts of reading’ brings with it a theatrical implication, the teasing out of which brings the possibility that some performances will out-star others; it must be said, however, that the general standard of the ‘actors’ here, judged by depth and range of scholarly research and the ability to convey that scholarship easily and elegantly, is high.
The arrangement of material is, in the main, chronological, with chapters managing to encompass – among much else – Aesop’s Fables, Lady Ellenor Fenn’s Cobwebs to Catch Flies, Wordsworth’s poetry, Grahame’s The Golden Age and Dream Days, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy and – striking a very contemporary note – ‘Reading in a Digital Age’. As this selective listing demonstrates, most of the volume’s references are to English writing for, or about, children and childhood, but an interesting diversion comes in a chapter by Valerie Coghlan and Geraldine O’Connor on the ‘influential force’ of the Kildare Place Society (KPS) in 19th-century Irish education. This is full of intriguing information and speculation, not the least revelation being that a report (1812) of the Commissioners of Education in Ireland states that, pre-KPS publications, Irish children were ‘at the mercy of texts which were likely to corrupt young minds…’, going on to list ‘racy’ examples such as The Pleasant Art of Money Catching, Nocturnal Revels and The Life of Moll Flanders. Is it any wonder we are what we are?
This is a publication which constitutes an entertaining and informative addition to our understanding of what reading has meant, means and will continue to mean. Its blend of the historical, philosophical, sociological, political and pedagogical will appeal to the academic reader but there is much in its largely jargon-free pages that deserves a more general audience also.