Experiencing A Book


How we read is a growing area of scholarship:

Did a reader's encounter with a book or newspaper happen in daylight or by candlelight? Was the book read out loud or in solitude? On the move or in bed? [Simon Eliot] talks about a kind of punctuated reading dictated by stagecoach travel, in which a reader jolted along rough 18th- or 19th-century roads might snatch a few minutes with a book at inns whenever the coach stopped to change horses, kind of like how travelers now might read in the airport lounge before boarding.

Today's readers, at least in the West, tend not to fret about having something to read and light enough to read by, "because books are so cheap and light is so cheap," Eliot says. British readers of earlier eras were not so lucky. Unless they could afford oil lamps or beeswax candles, they had to deal with messy, smelly candles made from tallow. Those imperfect sources of light required frequent trimming and were a fire hazard. Under such circumstances, "reading has to be choreographed," Eliot says. "You have to stop and trim" the wick as well as avoid setting yourself on fire.

(Collage by Erwan Soyer via My Modern Met)