Book lovers: affect and the history of reading in the late age of print

This research project began one afternoon at my Grandparents’ house. It was raining and I was lazily browsing through the many books on their many bookshelves. And then I found something extraordinary. I found an inscription from my father to my mother, from James to Sally. What was extraordinary was that this inscription was written long before James was my father or Sally was my mother. Not only had Dad inscribed the book, he had highlighted passages and left little messages in the margins. Almost as soon as I started reading them, I slapped the book shut. This discovery was too personal, too intimate for me to read any more of it. 

This project, then, is dedicated to finding the secret histories hiding in every bookshelf before they disappear. Over the past ten years, tablets, smartphones, and kindles have thrown the act of reading into a sharp new light. In response, the disciplines of book history, media studies, and literary studies are starting to reconsider the place of print books in digital culture. Building on recent critical work, my project will uncover an affective history of reading in the late age of print. Tracing the feeling of reading through libraries, art galleries, and works of literature, this programme of research intersects the fields of book history, art history, and literary studies to ask, what can the archive teach us about intimacy? How does book art draw embedded, embodied responses from its audience? And has the book become an emblem of everyday resistance within contemporary writing? To answer these questions this project will pursue three lines of inquiry into the material, visual, and literary aspects of the history of reading, making a series of interventions into book history and literary studies by developing a critical approach to reading the book as material object and literary text, showing the personal attachments that bind readers to books, and revealing how the emotional currents of reading have progressively absorbed contemporary art and writing. 

The first year of this fellowship will largely be taken up with archival research. I will use holdings at Birmingham, Leicester, Islington, and Hull to explore annotated works belonging to the director Peter Brooke, library books famously defaced by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, and copies of books that Monica Jones and the poet Philip Larkin bawdily altered over the course of several years. Further afield, this fellowship will allow me to travel to Kansas in order to conduct work in the poet Ronald Johnson’s archive, looking in particular at his experimental erasure poem Radi Os. This year will be about finding ways to read between the material, visual, and textual dialogues that archives hold, looking for the stories that books hide in public places, and exploring the intimate role of printed materials among private lives.

Dr Angus Brown
University of Birmingham