Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life

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William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life is an odd book. Published by University of Tennessee Press in 1989, it was not particularly well reviewed—its oddness frustrated readers. Gilmore set out to “learn how the American version of modern civilization began to influence the lives of the overwhelming majority of rural Americans” by making a fine-grained, comprehensive study of the reading, purchasing, and—less comprehensively—thinking habits of the people who lived in the Upper Connecticut River Valley between 1780 and 1835 (xx). Along the way, there are references to contemporary events Iran and Iraq, Isaac Asimov, corn-husking frolics, and the meaning of human happiness. Paul Johnson, with characteristic precision and wit, summarized the book’s problems in his JAH review (September 1990):

The book is confused, long-winded, and unjustifiably ambitious. Gilmore begins with a childhood reminiscence (it turns out to be irrelevant), then moves on to the announcement that his book about reading in early national Vermont will “enrich thinking about how to live fuller, more humane lives.”. . . [H]e indulges an uncontrolled penchant for naming and numbering. The reader confronts, among scores of others, “eight dimensions of rural infrastructure affecting the family,” “seven leading types of…voluntary societies,” “six distinct but overlapping forms of cultural expression,” “nine major contact points through which all books passed”—all of them explicated in stupefying detail…The book concludes with “public policy implications” that, insofar as this reviewer can figure them out, consist of the recommendation that Americans study their history (655-56).

I’m here to endorse this book as under-appreciated, but Johnson is not, for the most part, wrong. Reading is guilty of our gravest and most characteristic sin as academics: it is blindly, blindingly, self-indulgent. That self-indulgence, though, is not only the most likely reason that the book hasn’t had the reading it deserves—it’s also part of what makes the book valuable.

Reading is about the spread and consumption of information. “This volume is a history of infrastructure, a term which we will understand broadly as including both cultural and material factors,” Gilmore writes (7). On the material side, Gilmore exhaustively chronicles the geography of bookstores, libraries, printing presses, and newspaper delivery routes in a very tiny part of New England over the course of a few decades. He attempts to create an entire world—to recreate, rather, the Upper Connecticut River Valley during the early-national period. This involves, among other things, mapping the literal and imagined distance from print culture in a given place. “Central in shaping cultural participation, access to print culture was a function not of an historical absolute distance, but of concrete circumstances combining geographical distance and historical habits of travel” (178). Gilmore quantifies the significance of a bridge completed over the Connecticut river in 1796; he asks and answers questions like, who in this area, once their chores were done, could reach a bookstore and return home to read by his or her own hearth in a single day (180). Gilmore’s layering of the material facts of print culture participation is a marvel, and it is accomplished through tireless research and a willingness to imagine the practical terms of the world in which his subjects lived and moved.

The other side—the question of culture, of the consumption of information—is quite a bit more complicated, but Gilmore does not shrink from the challenge. How did the information that reached these people affect them? Gilmore attempts to tie political and religious positions to works present in family libraries documented in probate records. This sort of thing is always less neat than we would like it to be, but Gilmore is able to suggest what sorts of families (by locale and, to a surprising extent, by class) owned what sorts of print.  Johnson credited Gilmore with being able to “document aspects of the ‘democratization of mind’ in the early republic in unprecedentedly direct ways” (656).

Gilmore’s overarching point, though—and the impulse that brought the most criticism from contemporary reviewers—is not really about the early nineteenth century, but about the late twentieth. From the beginning of the book, Gilmore signals that insight into his own time would be the real value of his study, that his interest is “comparison between the first generations seeing the emergence of a new rural order of life within a mass culture of the printed word, and the first generations living in a world of electronic communications and an emerging international electronic culture” (2). One may agree or disagree with Gilmore’s take on the effects of information, but it has a clear resonance for the Internet Age:

Printed matter not only brought information about strange and fantastic worlds; it also transmitted views from mysterious and intriguingly different human hearts. Reading enriched awareness of the ambiguities inherent in human development and personality traits. As a result of their reading, some rural New Englanders broke through their provincialism—the most virulent of all American cultural characteristics—and broadened their comprehension of human individuality, diversity, and universality. At the same time they became painfully aware of their actual position and decreasing role within the far larger transformation of all North Atlantic civilization. The roots of alienation lie deeper in ‘modern life’ than we have imagined (15).

Gilmore died, suddenly and young, fourteen years ago yesterday. He is described by friends as a “Renaissance Man,” with a wide variety of research interests that he pursued with uniform intensity (I am indebted to Marie Lamoureux at the American Antiquarian Society for these reflections). He was a Fulbright scholar in Thailand, enjoyed jazz, conversation, and beer. The image that a little biography paints of the man puts the complexity of Reading in some context. The little autobiographical anecdote that opens the preface is not, as Johnson thought, irrelevant—it’s about discovering that people whom Gilmore thought should be happy were not. Gilmore—who by all accounts enjoyed life quite a lot—thought that was odd, so he wrote a book about the alienating character of modern life. The book also happens to be about reading in Vermont in the early nineteenth century.

The breadth of references and intended applications are what led Johnson to call Reading “unjustifiably ambitious.” Justifiable ambition, though, seems like a constraining sort of category. At some moments, I think, we all find whatever thing we work on to actually encompass a Theory of Everything, and we’re not wrong—if anyone else could just get far enough away from the canvas, they’d see our whole picture, too, and see that all of the dots we’ve come up with really are connected. I’m not sure it’s possible to get far enough from this canvas—Reading will always be a difficult book—but as an exercise in historical imagination and tireless devotion to the archive, it’s deserving of more patience than it’s received. The sort of indulgence that Reading demands of its readers is maybe best summarized by a different line from Johnson. In his preface to the 25th anniversary edition of A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, Johnson quotes something Herbert Gutman said to him about that book: “That book you wrote. It’s fucked-up. But it’s right.”

5 comments on “Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life

  1. Thanks for this post, Seth. I think you’re spot on about the strengths and weaknesses of the book. It’s one that I can barely stand to read — the prose is not, shall we say, the most fluid — but that I refer to and cite all the time in my work. At worst, it’s a treasure trove of data, but I agree that it also asks a series of questions that many are too timid to venture to try to answer.

  2. Rick Bell says:

    Agreed. This is a terrific book that is simultaneously a giant pain in the ass.

  3. raherrmann says:

    I’ll confess I haven’t read Gilmore’s book, but the description reminds me a bit of J. G. A. Pocock’s _The Machiavellian Moment_, which I know is important, but reading it is still very much like wandering around in a dense fog.

  4. Mr. Sidetable says:

    Thanks for writing this, Seth. It captures many of my own frustrations with this book over the years–ironically, a book that focuses so much on the damaging effects of provincialism is at times maddening for its own very narrow focus on a very specific place. Yet, as Joe and Rick note, it’s also incredibly useful.

  5. Dan Allosso says:

    I was surprised, when I tried to read further into the history of reading in the early republic, that there wasn’t more material. So in spite of what a tedious read it was, I was really happy to have found it. When I discovered dozens of young men in the Mass Vital Records had been named after Erasmus Darwin between 1800 and 1849, I had a Gilmore-esque moment and almost tried to turn that into a magnum opus.

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