Centre for the History of the Book

Christina Lupton

When Do We Read?

It is a well-celebrated fact that reading matter became more widely available during the eighteenth century:  texts became cheaper and freer in their production and circulated more quickly.  Less noted, however, is the fact that these improved conditions of material access to texts coincided with a sharp decline in leisure hours for most people in Britain.  The same social conditions that underpin the proliferation and democratisation of print are famously described by E.P.Thompson in ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ as working against the ideals of leisurely and self-directed time modelled in literature.

This paper unfolds as a meditation upon the juncture where reading as a desirable and democratically available form of transcendence intersects uncomfortably with the history of paid work becoming the prevalent mode of activity for so many.  How did people in the eighteenth century make time to read?  What kind of time was it that they made?  Does narrative from this period help or obstruct the making of leisure time?  

At the horizon of my argument is a set of considerations about our own reading practices as they intersect with and define with our twenty-first century economies of time.  From this threshold, I look back at what media theorists including Kittler and Stiegler consider to be the lag particular to writing as a medium that requires the time given to it to be set apart from—distinct from-- events themselves.  Reading, unlike other kinds of viewing, listening, and online participation signals a relation to a time of non-action and retreat.  In recent articulations, novel reading has been connected on these grounds with forms of slowness and concentration seen as under threat in a digital age. But was the when of novel reading ever really set apart from life?  Did it ever happen?


Christina Lupton is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University.

View her staff profile at Warwick University