Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

[Note: Usually I review crime fiction here, but this time I’m reviewing a work of serious and heavy-duty scholarship. I’ve been following the work of the Beyond the Book project for a few years, now, so was excited to learn a book was on its way. It has now been released by Routledge. It will be helpful for my sabbatical project, though it’s also a little intimidating. These authors did a lot of work!]

This book is a thorough and thoughtful analysis of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative material gathered in the course of an ambitious three-year project to explore what the authors call “mass reading events” – social/cultural practices designed to bring groups much larger than the traditional book club together to read the same book. Though these events have grown popular since Seattle kicked things off in the 1990s, they haven’t been widely studied (other than Oprah’s Book Club, one form of the mass reading event.). Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount St. Vincent University) make up for that by conducting an ambitious research program in three countries (US, Canada, UK) and writing a detailed, probing look at the results. Though it may seem a highly specialized phenomenon to study, it’s one that gives the authors a chance to “interrogate the social and material relations among the reading industry’s agents and agencies” (18).

“Shared reading” they write “is both a social process and a social formation” (27). In the first chapter, “Reading,” they review the history of shared reading, including literary societies, the Great Books program, and Elizabeth Long’s research on book groups. They critique the text-focus of much reader-response theory and point out that there is a gap in how we think about reading: though the reader as the object of study has been historically situated, “there is little attention to the reader-reader interaction and no sense of the ways that nonacademic readers might employ various reading practices as part of their everyday lives as social beings” (39). Their methodology was an attempt to use mass reading events as a platform for focusing on the social experience of the reader and the interaction between book, reader, the book industry, mass media, and how those all intersect in events focused on reading as a community event.

Chapters on the ways television and radio have promoted shared reading prove an opportunity to see how reading books is framed as enlightening, empowering, self-actualizing, and entertaining, all at once. I found it particularly interesting to see national differences and similarities between the U.S. (Oprah) with the U.K. (Richard and Judy) and Canada (which has a particularly interesting situation, needing to promote local cultural production while saturated with books from the UK and US; the CBC’s Canada Reads program embodies those contradictions). These chapters would be of interest to anyone curious about how mass media work in these three countries. The cultural politics of the BBC and CBC are complex as they accommodate consumer culture and neo-liberal assumptions about the economic drivers of human social behavior.

The fourth chapter is on money – the complex dance between commercial interests (both in selling books but also in attaching the cultural value of reading to other interests. These events seek sponsors, and the sponsors seek “useful symbolic capital” (126). Again, though the topic of mass reading events may seem rather narrow, it’s a lens for looking at the relationship between consumer capitalism and cultural production in the late age of print. “Ideologically,” the authors argue, “culture ceases to be valued primarily as a ‘public good,’ and instead becomes subject to the rules of domestic and international marketplaces . . . National and supra-national legislation about trade, monopolies and mergers, copyright, and intellectual property all played their part in the commercialization of culture” (130). There is a mixing of culture’s purpose that substitutes measures of utility and popularity for social well being. The authors contrast Richard Florida’s vision of culture as an entrepreneurial economic activity that provides levers for social change without relying on state intervention. The mass reading event then becomes a vehicle for shared consumption that has a a patina of “good for you” social capital. This intersection of motives also shows up in the different ways the NEA’s “Big Read” program and the IMLS’s involvement in it make the case for reading. One is more geared to the text as a work of literature that has transformative benefits, the other is more accepting of a wider range of reading tastes and the value of many kinds of reading. The authors argue that the “one book one community” model has migrated through these English-speaking nations because it fits with dominant neoliberal approaches to cultural value. It promises betterment without threatening the status quo.

A chapter on the people who put these programs together is another way to unpack the multiple motives of community reading programs, mixing a social mission with a celebration of celebrity culture, reading as a spur for social change and a way of bringing people into the fold of normative reading practices. Nancy Pearl’s rise to “superstar librarian” status is sketched out, a different path than that of her colleague who continued to work as a librarian. She tells a moving story of reading a novel about Japanese internment during World War II and how powerful it was to have elderly internees recognized by the community. (I dare you to read that passage with a dry eye! It’s a powerful emotional argument for how reading together can actually promote understanding.) The amount of donated labor and its cost is addressed, and the British Get Into Reading program is described, offering a different way to tie mass reading events to social change. This program doesn’t market events in search of an audience or work through traditional literary channels such as schools and libraries, but takes the program into community-based social services programs for immigrants, asylum seekers, the homeless, and others who might not identify with commercial literary culture. Further, it focuses on “quality” or classic literature in the belief that it shouldn’t be only enjoyed by the privileged. In some ways, it reminds me of the Great Books program in the US, but with a bigger emphasis on outreach to the disenfranchised. This exploration of cultural workers who promote reading “demonstrates how gender, generation, and geography shape the reproduction of traditional values about book reading as socially and morally transformative activity, as well as influencing more holistic, therapeutic, and creative ideals of the social change, pleasure, and relationships that shared reading can inspire” (204).

The final two chapters, “Reader” and “Book” explore what readers experience when participating in mass reading events and how they experience books as material objects. They use the term “citizen readers” to convey people who “read to belong just as they feel that they themselves belong to reading as an activity located in a place, along with others who share the same interest” (211). Sharing reading is an opportunity for them to share their own feelings and to promote a sense of belonging. It can also provide a personal link to authors who participate as the author shares stories about their lives. There is always the possibility that this sense of community is limited and may silence or exclude people. (A discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird in the south attracted a primarily white audience, for example.) At the same time, such events can “bring attention to issues of racism, cultural difference, and social injustice” at a time when “public forums for discussion are increasingly rare, and people’s agency over their material realities has declined” (242). One Book events allow participants a chance to experience the feeling of “being and belonging.”

The authors have lived up to their promise to interrogate “the paradox of promoting a prestige-laden activity on a large scale and via mass media [that] opens up a productive critical pathway for thinking about the ways that cultural value is brokered within ‘creative’ communities” (258). Though it’s limited to one kind of reading activity in three countries that have a lot in common, this is a remarkably in-depth study that teases out many insights into what reading means to readers, how book culture combines prestige with consumerism, how the radical potential for growth through literature is entangled with a conservative desire to belong and be comforted, and what role books and reading have in mass media and popular culture. This book is an important and insightful interdisciplinary contribution to reading studies.

One Response to Review of Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture

  1. […] university librarian, investigator of online reading practices, and an avid crime novel reader, Barbara Fister’s review offers a thoughtful and thorough response to Reading Beyond the Book.  Since posting her review, […]

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