The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period

The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period

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by William St Clair

"During the four centuries when printed paper was the only means by which texts could be carried across time and distance, everyone engaged in politics, education, religion, and literature believed that reading helped to shape the minds, opinions, attitudes, and ultimately the actions, of readers." "William St. Clair investigates how the national culture can be…  See more details below


"During the four centuries when printed paper was the only means by which texts could be carried across time and distance, everyone engaged in politics, education, religion, and literature believed that reading helped to shape the minds, opinions, attitudes, and ultimately the actions, of readers." "William St. Clair investigates how the national culture can be understood through a quantitative study of the books that were actually read. Centred on the romantic period in the English-speaking world, but ranging across the whole print era, he reaches startling conclusions about the forces that determined how ideas were carried, through print, into wider society." St. Clair provides an in-depth investigation of information, made available here for the first time, on prices, print runs, intellectual property, and readerships gathered from over fifty publishing and printing archives. He offers a picture of the past very different from those presented by traditional approaches. Indispensable to all students of English literature, book history, and the history of ideas, the study's conclusions and explanatory models are highly relevant to the issues we face in the age of the internet.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the most important scholarly books I have ever read.As a contribution to book history and reading history, this study would be hard to surpass. I hope that every scholar in these fields as well as those in English literature 1590-1890 will find a copy, engage seriously with it, and try to see that his or her local academic library scrapes up the money to invest in one." Rob Hume, Philological Quarterly

"St. Clair's voluminous book is important in the inter-related fields of publishing history, history of the book, and history of reading on two grounds--its methodology and its detailed data." Henry Berry, The Midwest Book Review

"...a rich, ambitious, and invariably stimulating study of publishing practices in the English-speaking world." Times Literary Supplement

Mr. St. Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period is the most important and useful book I've ever read on the history of the English book trade. It covers a much greater time period than the title implies." Terry Belanger, University Professor, University of Virginia

"… magnificent, original and compelling study … stretches far wider than its title suggests. He has a mass of new and fascinating things to say about the centuries that followed the invention of printing and also about the Victorian age which succeeded the Romantic period … The Reading Nation is clearly written and is throughout enjoyable to read." Ian Gilmour, London Review of Books

". . .nothing short of monumental. Moving beyond the typical perspective offered by book history —that of the producers and sellers of books —and instead telling the story from the point of view of the consumer, The Reading Nation brilliantly narrates the enduring and evolving struggle to obtain access to books." Michelle Levy Huntington Library Quarterly

". .. shows how one can revise many of the old unexamined truisms concerning romanticism by scrupulous quantitative analysis, without necessarily forfeiting an evaluative and critical stance. . .Even more important is the dire story which the book tells, and the warning which it delivers to our own era, about the social and historical consequences of monopolizing knowledge." Nigel Leask, History Workshop Journal

"… this dazzling, compulsively readable, intellectually challenging tour de force … St Clair brilliantly explores and explains the impact of economics, legal history, popular culture, societal structure, and bibliographic evidence, creating a seminal work, one that is truly indispensable to Romantic period scholars of every discipline. … This is a work of rigorous scholarship, imagination, supportable conclusions, and disciplined speculation. It is not to be missed." Jack Gumpert Wasserman, The Byron Journal

"The biggest idea the Tories ever had was to stop the people reading. Byron did more than anyone else to expose that crime and William St Clair has presented the whole story in an original guise." Michael Foot, Tribune

"St Clair's first few chapters are so well written and lucid that readers will be very quickly propelled into the subject, ready for the always pertinent supporting detail in chapters that range from Shakespeare to Frankenstein." Times Higher Education Supplement

"William St Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (CUP) is a masterly investigation … St Clair pieces together a picture that is both startling and disturbing. St Clair's narrative is fascinating, illuminating and provocative with a liberal dash of humour, and at every stage his arguments are supported with an abundance of data gleaned from an astonishing array of sources. … this book is a rare find, challenging and profoundly important and at the same time intriguing and eminently readable. I cannot recommend it highly enough." The Edinburgh Academy Chronicle

"The footnotes in St Clair's narrative constantly refer the reader to his own appendices, a sign that the author has ploughed new and compelling scholarly furrows and has derived his interesting and equally compelling conclusions from a massive piece of genuinely new archival research. … undoubtedly worth every penny." Rare Books Newsletter

"To anyone interested in intellectual property, or competition law, this scholarly, but eminently readable, work is highly commended. … it is invaluable as a well researched and readable discussion of the practical working such property rights in the publishing trade. It would not be surprising were this outstanding work to be found as 'lecture de chevet' for officials of the competition authorities in DG IV in Brussels or elsewhere." Hon Lord Eassie, Legal Information Management

"William St Clair's monumental new book is the most important contribution yet of the expanding field of book history to the study of Romantic literature … he has provided a firmer empirical foundation for speculation about the mentalities of Romantic readers than anything available before, and the implications of his stunningly original research will be pondered for years to come." BARS Bulletin

". . . an extraordinarily ambitious and impressive attempt to reformulate our knowledge of literary production and reception in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With nearly 300 Circle pages devoted to thirteen appendices and bibliography, The Reading Nation is one of the most useful volumes ever published on Romantic literature." Wordsworth Circle

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Product Details

Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.77(d)

Meet the Author

William St Clair is Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

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The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Henry_Berry More than 1 year ago
St. Clair's voluminous book is important in the inter-related fields of publishing history, history of the book, and history of reading on two grounds--its methodology and its detailed data. St. Clair's commentaries are informative, and his deductions will likely be regarded as bases for further studies. But it is the methodology and the unprecedented details on book publishing and many individual titles contained in 13 appendices of more than 250 pages which will especially draw the attention of many readers, historians, professors, and others in this area. For the appendices somewhat schematically indicate the methodology and present the data for the deductions. The author's painstaking efforts and publisher's equally meticulous efforts to accurately record, classify, and arrange the novel data in smaller type with footnotes account for the high price of the book. Focusing on publishing and reading--the sociology of reading it might be called--of the Romantic period in England, St. Clair at first exposes the errors of presumptions and perspectives that are commonly taken for granted in understandings and in other studies of his subject. Rather than the historian's or literary critic's approach, St. Clair adopts basically that of the statistician determined to get at the truth about the presence, distribution, and effects of books in society as far as this can be found. An example of the effects on print runs of the 1774 decisions [as to number of copies printing]; The main old-canon poets printed in the tiniest of formats, the cheapest achievably at the limits of manufacturing technology; Novels published at author's expense, are but three of the hundreds of specialized categories of the volume of data in the appendices. As St. Clair rightly notes, the common presumptions and perspectives are not founded on empirical evidence such as numbers of copies printed, subsequent printings, the timing of publication, etc.; nor are they capable of uncovering and properly weighing such empirical evidence. The old presumptions and perspectives reflected the literary temperaments and sentiments about literature of such historians and others. St. Clair uncompromisingly brings an economist's and statistician's requirements of evidence and conservative assessments of it to his magisterial study of publishing, books, readers, and the society and economy they were a part of. 'How to assess influence is among the most difficult of all the methodological challenges that historians face in attempting to understand the diffusionary rise and fall of ideas' is but one of the author's remarks exemplifying his questioning of the accepted knowledge in the field and setting out his own clear, though not dogmatic, premises. A former high official in the British Treasury, St. Clair is now a Senior Research Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University. The author, with his great respect for simple logic and plain facts along with his innate conservativism in putting forth his new views, has not cast a rock against the house of embedded ideas about publishing, books, and readers. Rather, he has put out a lodestone which is likely to reformulate the study of books and related subjects.