northanger abbey :: reading the readers

In the late eighteenth century and the Regency, reading itself was changing as new kinds of books and new reading venues appeared. In place of the traditional private library that contained books owned by the reader that could be reread and mulled over at will, circulating libraries featuring new publications proliferated. These capitalistic ventures lent books by the volume for only days at a time, providing mobile audiences with a onetime reading for a quick fix. At the same time, booksellers were issuing books for wide consumption in forms that encouraged rapid, dip-and-skip reading: selections and collections that printed passages from texts recommended by critics and book reviewers like Samuel Johnson. Ranging from sixpenny pamphlets providing a handful of poems to mini-libraries promising the best British literature, these publishers’ innovations commercialized literary culture for diverse readers. Such books promoted a new way of reading: the fast and shallow acquisition of a wide variety of texts to allow women to mimic the “extensive reading” that Darcy endorses as a sign of feminine accomplishment.3 They thus encourage readers to memorize literary fragments to show off their fashionable sensitivity. This cheap use of literature for profit and self-display is one of Austen’s targets in Northanger Abbey

Reading by the Book in Northanger Abbey – Barbara Benedict

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