Book Chapter

Reading and Ownership



Squires C, Nash A & Towheed S (2019) Reading and Ownership. In: Nash A, Squires C & Willison IR (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain Volume 7: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Cambridge History of the Book in History, 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 231-276.

First paragraph: ‘It is as easy to make sweeping statements about reading tastes as to indict a nation, and as pointless.’ This jocular remark by a librarian made in the Times in 1952 sums up the dangers and difficulties of writing the history of reading. As a field of study in the humanities it is still in its infancy and encompasses a range of different methodologies and theoretical approaches. Historians of reading are not solely interested in what people read, but also turn their attention to the why, where and how of the reading experience. Reading can be solitary, silent, secret, surreptitious; it can be oral, educative, enforced, or assertive of a collective identity. For what purposes are individuals reading? How do they actually use books and other textual material? What are the physical environments and spaces of reading? What social, educational, technological, commercial, legal, or ideological contexts underpin reading practices? Finding answers to these questions is compounded by the difficulty of locating and interpreting evidence. As Mary Hammond points out, ‘most reading acts in history remain unrecorded, unmarked or forgotten’. Available sources are wide but inchoate: diaries, letters and autobiographies; personal and oral testimonies; marginalia; and records of societies and reading groups all lend themselves more to the case-study approach than the historical survey. Statistics offer analysable data but have the effect of producing identikits rather than actual human beings. The twenty-first century affords further possibilities, and challenges, with its traces of digital reader activity, but the map is ever-changing.

reading; ownership; history of publishing

Title of seriesCambridge History of the Book in History
Number in series7
Publication date01/06/2019
PublisherCambridge University Press
Publisher URL…lume-7?format=HB
Place of publicationCambridge

People (1)


Professor Claire Squires

Professor Claire Squires

Professor in Publishing Studies, English Studies