Reading Typographically
Immersed in Print in Early Modern France
Geoffrey Turnovsky




WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF reading? Enter this question into a Google search and somewhere over two billion results return with links to web pages hailing the “health benefits of reading,” the “science-based benefits of reading,” or the “ways reading makes you better at life.”1 Typical of the web, many of these pages offer enumerated rankings, itemizing the top five, eight, ten, or fourteen benefits.2 In fact, these benefits cohere around a limited number of themes that recur throughout the lists (often expressed in the same or near-same terms, as is typical for this kind of “clickbait”): reading exercises the brain; it staves off Alzheimer’s and dementia and enhances memory; reading helps manage stress and improves sleep. In a survey of twenty-nine “randomly” chosen lists—selected, that is, from the first five or six pages of results I saw when, in May 2021, I entered the search for “benefits of reading”—eleven included memory enhancement as one of the itemized benefits; thirteen proposed improved sleep; fifteen highlighted protection against Alzheimer’s and dementia; and twenty-four of the twenty-nine lists pointed to stress reduction and relaxation.

For the purposes of this sampling, I selected only lists that conceived of “reading” in the most general terms without any further qualification, such as “reading to children” or “reading aloud.” In this sense, the enumerated benefits purport to reflect a nonspecific, intransitive reading, with no ulterior objective or goal beyond the activity itself. These are quite simply the benefits of reading. There are, after all, follow-on benefits to reading a recipe or to reading the instructions for how to renew a passport. Learning how to do things, or how effectively to accomplish tasks, whether performing a job, putting together a piece of furniture, or fulfilling the obligations of citizenship—being informed, voting—has long been central to our evolving conceptions of the value of literacy. The US Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which measured the reading skills of American adults, foregrounded these more utilitarian outcomes in its survey, viewing literacy as the “use” of information in order “to adequately function at home, in the workplace, and in the community.”3

This functionalist perspective is, however, almost entirely absent from the conventional wisdom distilled in the twenty-nine online lists I looked at. In those inventories, reading’s benefits ensue from the activity per se, not from the information or skills to which reading gives access. Accordingly, the payoffs are envisioned holistically, in terms of benefits to health, well-being, and personal ethical development. The latter is reflected in a series of moralized attributes that, the lists claim, reading also cultivates. An increased ability to concentrate, focus, and to become immersed in the activity appears in seventeen of the twenty-nine lists (in one or more of these three formulations). And related to the capacity for immersion (which itself depends on the ability to focus and concentrate), eighteen of the twenty-nine lists highlight an augmented capacity to empathize with others. “According to studies, losing yourself in books, especially fiction, might increase your empathy,” notes one site.4 “Reading makes you more empathetic,” affirms another: “by reading about the lives of people who are very different from yourself, your empathy for others naturally increases.”5

At this juncture, two points bear mentioning. First, illustrated in the just-cited examples, is how easily and often the lists end up shifting from the unqualified “reading” announced in the website headings to more articulated formulations in the listed benefits, such as “reading fiction” or “reading about the lives of people,” despite the ostensibly general framing for which I had filtered the results. This conflation is systematic. Twenty-one of the twenty-nine lists go on in their itemizations to include benefits pointedly tied to reading “fiction” or, in a number of cases, “literary fiction.” Many of these qualifications come in connection with reading’s ability to teach empathy for others, where the others for whom one learns to feel empathy are characters in a story or a novel.6 “Getting lost in a good read can make it easier for you to relate to others,” states one site, offering “science-backed reasons to read a (real) book.” The page goes on to assert that “literary fiction, specifically, has the power to help its readers understand what others are thinking.”7 As this example makes obvious, the narrowing of “reading” to “reading fiction” is fully conscious. But it is unaddressed as such. That is, the validity of the gradual conflation of “reading” with “reading fiction” goes without any rationalization or explanation. “Reading fiction” is simply assumed to be an acceptable or natural proxy for “reading,” notwithstanding the many other ways and types of materials that people read. In this sense, when conceived abstractly as an activity with particular health and moral benefits, reading is more specifically construed as an intense, focused, and immersive experience that activates emotions, interests, and affective attachments focalized not on the reader’s objective lived reality (as would be the case with an instruction manual or a recipe book) but on an alternative world represented in the text read, especially in a text of narrative fiction: “When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away.”8 As it turns out, detachment from the reader’s lived reality in order to become “lost” in a surrogate textual world lies at the heart of the various benefits the reader can expect, whether these are imagined as enhanced cognitive capacities mobilized in an ability to focus and follow a plotline, as stress reduction and an unplugging from the travails of “real life” that leads to a recentering of self, or as the ethical payoff of becoming a more understanding person through compassion for a fictional character.

The second point needing emphasis reflects another conflation, one that is less conscious yet even more systematic: the conflation between “reading” and “reading books.” In fact, every one of the twenty-nine lists ultimately represents reading as an activity defined by books, even if a few do specify alternative potential formats for reading materials, such as an audio file or “a longer piece of text” understood in context to be electronic.9 These allowances, though, tend to serve more as caveats and backup plans—“If you cannot go to the library . . . , you can even scout for [books] on online sources”10—and prove the rule that reading, in its most constructive forms, ostensibly happens with books. What does book refer to in the context of delineating literacy’s edifying payoffs? None of the lists defines what a book is. That is presumed to be understood. But all of the lists make the book’s deep implications in reading’s salutary effects evident. The works of fiction that teach empathy are invariably referred to as books. Books are what readers become immersed in: “Getting lost in a book could also make you more empathetic.”11 Books are what “emotionally transport” readers and “expand horizons.”12 Books are what demand and hold attention: “sitting down with a book takes long periods of focus and concentration.”13

Do “books,” in these examples, mean printed books? Twenty years ago, I suspect the print/digital divide would have overtly, and likely polemically, if also paradoxically, defined the reading practices promoted in these websites, as was the case in the 1990s, when Sven Birkerts railed against “electronic reading” in his print book, Gutenberg Elegies. Interestingly, however, in the early 2020s, only a few of the lists make the connections among reading, books, and print explicit. One, cited above in reference to “(real) book[s],” stresses the rewards of “flipping pages” and “the feel of paper pages under your fingertips”: “When it comes to actually remembering what you’re reading,” the site asserts, “you’re better off going with a book than you are an e-book.”1ยข Most of the other sites, however, take the advent of e-readers and digital platforms in stride; and in a number of instances, as we have seen, they embrace the possibility that the reading practices being advocated can be found in those formats: “If you’re not up for lugging a book around, and your e-reader doesn’t see much action, don’t worry—all you need is your phone.”15 Yet even when they do entertain such a prospect, all twenty-nine of the lists sketch a concept of “reading” that is symbolically represented by the “book.” This book-centered concept is, in turn, consistently made to stand in stark counterpoint to the mind-sets and dispositions elicited by new forms of information media, which, in contrast with the health effects of reading books, push the individual in less worthy ways. Computers, the internet, blog posts, news articles, technology, TV, phones, screens and screen time, podcasts, email, and social media are all, at various points, invoked in the websites as modern agents of distraction, enervation, fragmentation, restlessness, and anomie. Reading and books are, to these, the antidote: “Step away from the computer for a little while, crack open a book and feel free to replenish your soul,” advises one article.16

Allowances for digital formats—a PDF or ePub file to read on an electronic device—notwithstanding, overall, as the formulation “crack open a book” conveys (a phrase used in a number of the lists), it is impossible to ignore how deeply the basic techniques and experiences of “reading” celebrated in the websites—from “sitting down with a book” to “curling up with your book after a long day” to “cozy[ing] up to read with a cup of tea” to “picking up and reading a ‘real’ book”17—are embedded in the analog experiences of printed books, even as some of the articles concede that soul-replenishment and moral education can be found from a digital platform (most simply don’t address the distinction). In fact, while the sites have more or less entirely abandoned the mid-1990s antidigital polemics of Birkerts, the techniques they describe correspond well to what Birkerts had upheld as “the order of print,” conceived as “linear,” requiring the reader’s “active engagement” and “sustained attention,” and “essentially private.” This was articulated against the “electronic order,” which is “in most ways opposite”—networked, “evanescent,” lacking “detail and linear sequentiality,” “rapid,” and “driven by jump-cut increments.”18

Birkerts’s rhetoric was steeped in the nostalgic view that, as Nicholas Carr would put it in a more recent Birkertsian exposition from 2011, The Shallows, “the age of print” was now defunct.19 Birkerts lamented the loss of the “vestigial order” of the printed word and the shift “away from the patterns and habits of the printed page.”20 And, to be sure, there is no denying the momentousness of the rise of digital technologies and the profundity of their impacts on our writing and reading practices. But this only makes more remarkable the fact that, in the conventional wisdom of the early 2020s on reading’s significance and salutary effects, as distilled in scores of online lists of reading’s benefits, the printed book’s presence is relentless and ubiquitous, as the framework and language (“curling up with a book”) for articulating a set of ingrained and edifying reading techniques and habits, not to mention in the profusion of images of printed books that adorn these sites. What are we to make of this?

Considering Printing Technology in the History of Reading

Reading Typographically explores the development of an immersive ideal of reading that is celebrated today as especially amenable to health and moral benefits such as focus and concentration. Most saliently for this study, the ideal provides a framework for experiences of empathy, channeled through the reader’s capacity to connect affectively and psychologically with characters represented in written text as if they were real people and to grow and improve personally in and through these experiences. The rise of empathetic or sentimental reading in the eighteenth century has been scrutinized by literary and cultural historians. What drives my investigation is a question not centrally addressed in most existing studies but that the websites and discourses cited above make pertinent: how did this ideal become so deeply associated with print technology such that in today’s reflections on reading and literacy the link is inescapable and inextricable? If readers learn to focus, it is insofar as they have been trained by the materiality of the printed book, led by its sequence of bound leaves to follow “a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages,”21 while the book’s analog disconnectedness, its unnetworked monotasking qualities—its lack of hyperlinks and of multiple windows running alternative sites and applications—enables readers to become absorbed. “Online,” writes Steven Johnson, “you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article—sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.”22

In fact, there is nothing “natural” about the medium of the printed book that necessarily entails reading it in a linear and absorbed way. The existence of printed dictionaries, phone books, cookbooks, and newspapers, as well as the prevalence of what is surely the largest category of books printed since the advent of Gutenberg’s press—religious and devotional texts—suggests that the linear, immersive mode was never the exclusive or even dominant method for reading “real books,” old-fashioned or otherwise. Nor does immersive reading have any claim to historical precedence over the discontinuous approaches called for by these other kinds of texts. On the contrary, the strictly linear reading of books is a belated aberration, a “brilliantly perverse interlude in the long history of discontinuous reading,” as Peter Stallybrass memorably argued, the ascendency of which tracked not the rise of print but the popularity of new narrative genres like the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, well after print had established its preeminence in Europe.23 Relatedly, rather than being tied to printing technologies, arguments about linear reading and books are more properly associated with the physical characteristics of the codex—that is, the book form familiar to us today as a bound collection of flippable pages. The history of the codex extends back far earlier than the spread of movable-type printing, back into antiquity when boards of wood hollowed and filled with wax were tied together to function as notebooks for punctual and transient texts inscribed into the wax with a stylus and in turn easily melted for new writing. As a more permanent and authoritative platform for recording, accessing, and preserving texts, the codex became dominant among early Christians in the first centuries of the Common Era. Not the least of the codex’s advantages was its ability to enable discontinuous reading by offering easier access to disparate and disconnected parts of the book (above all, to passages in different biblical books in the context of liturgy and devotion), without having to unroll and reroll a scroll.24 From the manuscript codices of the Middle Ages to the printed books that spread through Europe and across the globe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, most key innovations that catered specifically to codex-based reading—the development of indices, concordances, pagination, tables of contents, marginal annotations, footnotes, and the structural organization of texts into paragraphs and chapters, among other developments—reflected the prevalence of jump-cutting navigation and punctual information retrieval—ironically, precisely the type of reading that tends to be ascribed today to the digital in opposition to print—rather than the prioritization of absorption and focus as a reading experience.

In other words, for the first three hundred years of the “age of print” in Europe, the technology of typography developed in order to better provision a textual world that had long become invested in discontinuous reading as the default and preferred mode, the mode, moreover, presumed to offer the greatest “benefits of reading.” In this respect, the “order of print” was the opposite of what Birkerts contended. It was not linear, a fact further underscored by the new text-copying process itself. Printing required pages to be set and laid out on the press, not according to the sequential flow of the text but in the disjointed order determined by the folding and binding of the large sheets of paper onto which multiple pages—two, four, eight, twelve, or more—would be printed with each pull of the press.25 We should also keep in mind at this juncture that the history of the book is not the history of print, as implied by the conflation in Birkerts’s and Carr’s ascribing of a codex-derived quality—the sequence of pages—to the not necessarily related technology of movable-type printing. Birkerts and Carr reflect broader tendencies—to associate print specifically with codex-enabled linear reading (and its ostensible effects) and to credit print for the latter, which long preexisted print—that are critical to keep in mind and ultimately one of the key interests of this book.26

As Stallybrass emphasized, it was the advent of new textual forms that most promoted new linear reading habits rather than qualities inherent to the materiality of printed books, above all, novels and other forms of fictional narrative that took off in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with plotlines that had to be followed from start to finish for the reading experience to make sense and be fulfilling. Accordingly, historians investigating the rise of more immersive reading practices have, in their analyses, foregrounded the impacts of formal, stylistic, and linguistic factors: the emergence of new genres, such as the psychological, epistolary, or sentimental novel; the popularity of affective, “tear-jerking” thematics; a more deeply psychologized characterization that entailed more realistic depictions of personae; effusive style; and powerful authorial claims to moral clarity. All of these factors were geared toward eliciting in the reader focused attention, emotional response, and ethical investment. Lynn Hunt’s history of the invention of human rights in prerevolutionary France opens with a provocative chapter arguing for the pivotal role that reading novels played in creating the framework of a political order predicated on a belief in universal rights. In Hunt’s account, new psychological dispositions among impassioned readers of the novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Samuel Richardson inclined them, as they became deeply and personally interested in characters hailing from all walks of life and from distant parts of the world, to experience empathy across divides of social, economic, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds. Readers could then, in real life, conceive of commonalities among all people: “reading novels created a sense of equality,” Hunt asserts. Critical was the triumph of the epistolary novel. Brimming with sentiment and subjectivity, the letters constituting works like Clarissa and La Nouvelle Héloïse offered the illusion of direct, unmediated access into the minds of characters who could then be perceived with such vividness that readers took the fictional constructs to be living people with whom they could imagine interacting, as humans. “This made possible a heightened sense of identification,” Hunt contends, “as if the characters were real, not fictional.”27

Robert Darnton stresses the “rhetoric” of Rousseau’s authorial performances in his investigation of the powerfully uplifting experiences that readers of La Nouvelle Héloïse reported in letters they addressed directly to the author. The “effectiveness” of this rhetoric, as Darnton put it, which readers encountered in the work’s multiple prefaces, caused them to “read [Rousseau] in the way that he asked to be read.” As they recounted in their gushing missives “the way they suspended their critical instinct, identified with characters, and let waves of emotion wash over themselves,” these readers, Darnton asserts, “paraphrased or quoted, consciously or not, the instructions that Rousseau had given them himself in the prefaces.”28

The distinctive tones, formal and generic qualities, and authorial airs connected with the eighteenth-century novel have figured prominently in scholarship on the emergence of affective and “identificatory” reading practices in the eighteenth century.29 But studies of other pivotal moments in the history of “modern” reading—for instance, the expanding readership that formed around periodicals like the Mercure galant in late seventeenth-century France—have also gravitated to the overriding explanatory power of textual form, language, and genre to account for new reading practices. In the case of the Mercure’s public, it was the compressed narrative genre of the nouvelle, which the Mercure promoted in its pages, that conjured up a new public, one that was more provincial and diverse in socio-occupational background than the aristocratic groups that had supposedly constituted the readerships of the long heroic romances of the early seventeenth century. The nouvelle offered fictions with more concentrated plotlines situated in more familiar contemporary settings, as well as deeper, more complex, and more “relatable” characters with whom “average readers,” to use Joan DeJean’s phrase, connected. As Monique Vincent affirms, “[the] scenes would please female readers [aux lectrices] all the more that they were set in [the reader’s] own milieux. A constant assimilation was established between characters and readers with the frequent use of the epistolary form.”30

In prioritizing genre and literary form, these studies share the inclination, in defining the reading experience, to deprioritize the impacts of material evolutions in the printed codex and typography. The evolution implicitly posited in the studies is toward reading becoming a more purely intellectual or psychological exercise, in which the book, as a typographic artifact, plays less and less of a positive role. The printed book’s defining purpose is, in this sense, to gradually vanish from an experience that it enables yet which is predicated on the reader’s emerging belief that the words delivered by the book and deciphered by the reader simply are the words of the author or the character who speaks them, not the typographic representation of those words on a page, carrying all the artisanal and editorial mediations that this would imply. The power of the epistolary form to connect readers with characters lay in this obfuscation: “No narrator, indeed no quotation marks, stand between us and Pamela herself,” Hunt observed. Such a statement plays down the typographic and editorial labor required to generate the impression of immediacy. This is hardly surprising. The absence of quotation marks does not impress a sense of the importance of typography. It also emblematizes the fact that this labor sought not highly noticeable effects but ones that deflected readerly attention: editorial self-effacement, streamlined and unobtrusive type design, rational page layout, an easy and standardized typographic code for punctuating what was intended to be read as nontypographic language—the live speech or private handwritten letters of another human—and a chronological organization of documents presented as their natural state, rather than the outcome of editorial or curatorial work, to name a few of the phenomena that we will explore in this book.31

The relatively small place given to the material and typographic dimensions of reading in studies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries stands in contrast to scholarship focused on reading in earlier periods. The latter has been more likely to consider as germane to the reading experience different kinds of physical interactions with the book object. These interactions might be ocular, as in the development of conventions around word spacing and punctuation developed by medieval scribes, which potentially allowed for faster, less oralized, and thereby more internalized reading practices.32 They might consist in particular kinds of appropriations of books. Studies of Renaissance readers have focused on annotations left in the margins of their books, through which these individuals engaged the knowledge of antiquity.33 By the same token, we have already seen the copious presence of printed books in current discourse on immersive reading, though as we will consider in this study, I suspect the roots of both the absence and presence of print in, respectively, historical scholarship on absorptive reading after, say, 1650, and conventional wisdom about its benefits today are closely related. The ascendency of typography as a primary textual platform in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries entailed the dominance of a reading mode defined by the ability—learned as one learns to read and sustained by evolutions in typographic and book form—to ignore the platform, to see through the printed page rather than to look at it, as if the page were a window onto the world represented by the text, and did not carry the text per se. This ingrained, reflexive ability to separate content from form—to distinguish a text from its material instantiation and to focalize on the former at the expense of the latter—is what enables readers to believe that they can “hear” the voice of the author or “see” a scene play out. It is ultimately what allows them to envision characters as real people with whom they can empathize and imagine interacting, rather than as the artifacts of discourse conveying a lesson to internalize or a model to imitate. The inattention to print in scholarship on seventeenth-and eighteenth-century reading reflects an inattention to the printed book in historical archives bearing witness to reading habits that had been trained to ignore it. “Sans que je m’en aperçoive” (without noticing) is how Denis Diderot described the way that reading Richardson’s novels impacted him, exemplifying the way they should ideally be read.34 In turn, the prospect today of print’s obsolescence and its replacement by screens and digital platforms has inspired awareness of how much these habits had in fact been shaped by typography.

Though typography does not play a major role in Darnton’s interpretation of how readers read Rousseau, his influential essay on the topic does underscore the prevalence, in a time when books were “made by hand,” of a “typographical consciousness” that “has disappeared now that books are mass-produced for a mass audience.” “The reader of the Old Regime approached [books] with care,” Darnton states, invoking an exoticized historical reader who would “finger the paper, . . . study the type, examine the spacing, check the register, evaluate the layout, and scrutinize the evenness of the printing.”35 We would of course be surprised to see this type of fastidiousness in a buyer browsing the latest titles in a bookstore today, even less so in an online shopper clicking a link. But the reality is more complex than Darnton suggests. In fact, as an articulation in a longer history of reading, the emoting, moralistic readers of Rousseau in the 1760s were, to an unprecedented degree, uninterested in the materiality of their books and were far more inclined than earlier readers to overlook rather than to appreciate the bibliographic niceties Darnton enumerates. Viewed in a broader time frame, there had perhaps never been a group of readers less “conscious” of the quality of paper or ink or type or who talked less about physical books in their accounts of their reading experiences. Relatedly, as they became more standardized, generic, and banal, books as objects had never asked for less attention from their users.

This, I argue, is what ultimately constitutes the “typographical consciousness” of eighteenth-century readers; their inculcation into the habits and habitus—to use Pierre Bourdieu’s concept for describing a set of ingrained habits and dispositions that shape behavior and beliefs prior to any calculated thought36—of print literacy. Print literacy does not produce bibliophilic fetishism of the printed object. “Bibliomania” emerges in this moment as a distinctly negative image of book use, an aberrant and unproductive use based on the idea of not reading books and, thus, not benefiting from the moral payoffs of reading.37 Rather, print literacy inures readers to an object that, as a basic condition of its functionality, increasingly deflects their focus, onto a story, a plot, a scene, and onto characters perceived not as exemplars or moral allegories but as real people living real lives, in whose singular fortunes readers can—and in fact, should, as good readers—become personally interested. There is a connection between this configuration and the immersive, linear, and edifying experiences that will come to define reading and literacy in our time, as expressed in the online lists with which I started. Of course, those lists also reveal that we are not as indifferent to print today as Darnton implies. Yet it is not that we are attuned to print’s artisanal refinements. As typical buyers, users, and readers of books today, we know nothing of format or paper or ink quality. Instead, paradoxically, the qualities of printed books to which we are most attached and which we are the most anxious about losing with the rise of the digital are precisely those that also allow us to “forget” the book as we read, those that establish the printed book’s familiarity and comfort: its silence, simplicity of handling, transparency, and the portability that permits us to easily absorb the book into our physical comforts—“curling up” with it—rather than forcing us to adapt to it.

Key Features of Print and Typography

The paradigm of immersive, moralized reading that took root in the print world of the late seventeenth century and came to predominance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continues to define our most prevalent ideals of reading and literacy today. It was, I argue, especially shaped by two key features (to use the terminology of Elizabeth Eisenstein) of print and typography. The first lies in the fact that printing is a technology of reproduction more than of inscription.38 The rationale that would shape the impacts of the handpress as the technology developed from the fifteenth century was much less its power to write text than to multiply copies of written text. After all, for creating a single transcription, movable-type printing was a lot less efficient and flexible than writing the text out by hand, a process that, for one copy, was not only faster—centuries of scribal technique had accelerated this process—but easier to adapt for individual circumstances. “There is something ridiculous in the unique copy of a printed book,” wrote the twentieth-century type designer Stanley Morison.39 In this respect, a printed text will invariably be one copy among many identical copies of that text constituting an “edition” or a “work,” with the important caveat that we understand identical in the broad context of historical technologies for writing and reproducing text, which is to say, in comparison with how similar two handwritten or chiseled-in-stone copies of a same text might be. This, of course, does not preclude that handwritten copies can be remarkably similar. The Paris Bibles of the thirteenth century offered an unprecedented degree of consistency from copy to copy, in the text itself, in the organization of chapters, and, to a degree, in the page layout. This “standardization” permitted the development of an innovative set of tools for navigating, finding, and cross-referencing, which would then be adapted by printers and become mainstay features of printed books.40 Nor does identical here preclude that subtle differences will always exist among individual printed copies, owing to technological imperfections, mechanical flaws, and stop-press corrections, as well as to efforts to create subsets of special gift copies within editions, using better paper or adding a customized dedication. Subtle does not mean insignificant. But as Elizabeth Eisenstein put it, we “must be wary of underrating as well as of overestimating the advantages of the new technology.”41 Notwithstanding the discrepancies that the exacting eye of a bibliographer or book historian might discern between printed copies, the fact is that the experiences of “average” readers in the age of print were shaped not by a sense of the distinctiveness of their individual copies but by the increasingly ingrained belief that the copy a person read was consistent as a conveyance of a work with other copies in circulation—both those from a same edition and those from other editions—to the point where, whatever differences might exist between copies, the question did not, as a normal matter of course, impose itself. The individual copy was simply presumed to deliver the same text, attributable to the same identifiable source, that is, to an author who became increasingly visible on the title page.42

New feelings of community among readers were one outcome of this sense of reading an identical copy among many, as Eisenstein, Benedict Anderson, and Michael Warner have argued, highlighting the importance of print circulation for the creation of abstract “imagined communities” in the age of print, most emblematically new national communities unified by a shared vernacular.43 But I want to foreground a different kind of dynamic, emphasizing reading experiences premised on the individual seeking, through reading, distinction and differentiation from a larger group of which this reader was, as a reader (and buyer) of a “same” text, nonetheless a part. My argument is that the psychology of immersive reading lay not just in the feelings of intimacy for an author or character that readers expressed in their various accounts and on which so much scholarship has focused. More exactly, it lay in the tension to which these readers also inevitably attest between these feelings of concentrated and individualized connection, on one hand, and their awareness of the deeply commercialized and mediated nature of the reading process, on the other—a process shaped as never before by the market, by standardization, and by the availability and readability of certain types of highly commodified books. In fact, the works that would historically most enable immersive reading experiences were mass-produced “bestsellers,” unprecedented for the degree to which they were pitched to as large a commercial audience as possible and, relatedly, for the number of copies in which they circulated. This framework was not incidental to or at cross-purposes with the feelings of closeness to authors and characters that these works’ readers experienced. The mass-market context—and readers’ consciousness of it—was integral to the claims readers advanced to a unique moralized relationship with the author and characters, which they pointedly articulated against the backdrop of this large public. “In truth, Monsieur, I don’t know if you’ll find on earth a reader more worthy of you than I am,” writes one fan to Rousseau in February 1761. This reader’s sense of his own singularity as a reader based on his sense of the exclusivity of his relationship to the author was expressed in and through contrast with a mass readership that he imagines spans the globe. The latter gave value to the former.44

The second feature essential for understanding how the technology of print helped to shape new immersive reading experiences follows from the first. As an identical copy among the thousands (and in the case of many of the works pertinent for this study, tens of thousands) in circulation at any given time, the printed text that the reader physically holds defers entirely to an abstract “work,” which the printed copy faithfully replicates and delivers to the reader but with which it is understood not to be consubstantial. “Where exactly does the text end and the book begin?” asks Meredith McGill, about what specifically gets reproduced in reprint editions; indeed, what is the object of replication?45 Print’s capacities for reproduction both elicit the question and proffer an answer in the development of a typographic rhetoric that prioritized a work written by an author as the book’s “content,” what was read, with the individual copy conceived as a neutral conveyance of this content, necessarily so, since individual copies cannot convey a meaning distinct from that of the overarching work. As this system evolves into the modern era, typography’s purpose is identified with its capacity not to deliver a discrete materialization of a text but to offer access to a text understood to exist independently of the specific typographic platform. And in this respect, typography evolves as a medium of transparency, to be seen through and not looked at. “The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author’s words,” wrote Beatrice Warde in a famous essay likening printing to a “crystal goblet” whose purpose was to highlight the wine it contained rather than draw attention to itself as the wine’s vessel. “Printing should be invisible,” she asserted.46 Warde’s point was made forcefully and has been resisted forcefully. But the underlying principle of transparency that she underscored in the early twentieth century had long shaped key developments in the history of printing and typography, especially ones driven by the need to improve readability or legibility. Such developments revolved around principles of ease, facility, and the ability to assimilate a text’s meaning while minimizing the mental or physical efforts of reading as an exercise. In this perspective, the book’s materiality—its visual qualities; its weight and size—come to be construed as an impediment to a full experience of the text. Thus, efforts to promote readability generally push in the direction of dematerialization, privileging portability, blank space on the page, and lightness and geometrical predictability in type design over excessively stylized letterforms, a densely and darkly inked page, and large heavy tomes.

Two final points in this section. First, I follow Claire Bourne’s useful framing of “typography in a capacious sense to mean the arrangement and appearance of printed matter on the page.”47 Moreover, Bourne cites Morison, who begins his “First Principles of Typography” by defining typography in terms of readerly outcomes; typography is “the craft of rightly disposing printing material in accordance with specific purpose; of so arranging the letters, distributing the space and controlling the type as to aide to the maximum the reader’s comprehension of the text.” Bourne also draws on Joseph Moxon’s similarly suggestive seventeenth-century comment that typography—specifically, in context, the work of the compositor—seeks to “better sympathize with the Authors Genius, and also the capacity of the Reader.”48 Typography and print are used somewhat interchangeably in this study, with typography tending to describe the disposition and arrangement of the text in the material platform and print designating more the copying and dispersion of that text, generally via commercial sales, though there is plenty of overlap. Notably, both terms refer to a set of techniques, strategies, and materializations that mediate the reception of a text by a reader, shaping that reception in critical ways, indeed enabling and heightening that reception in accordance with a particular logic.

One of those ways—and ultimately the most archetypal, as I argue—is by encouraging a reader to become lost in the text. My second note is simply to specify that, by immersion, I am designating the particular effect illustrated in the website lists with which I began: “When you read a book, all of your attention is focused on the story—the rest of the world just falls away.”49 There are other ways to conceive of immersion and of the printed book’s potential role in fostering the experience of it. One can become immersed in a complex argument or in a network of citations, facilitated by cross-references and other indexical tools developed by scribes and printers over many centuries. The internet exercises its own type of immersive pull on readers in this way. Readers may be less inclined to lose themselves in a story read digitally but more inclined to get sucked into the endlessness of a sequence of links or into the back-and-forth of a social media exchange. They are also, of course, likely to get drawn into the alternative reality of a video game, though in this case, we are further afield from the phenomenon of “reading” (even if reading is involved). My book explores a type of readerly immersion that follows from reading written text and that leads to moralized experiences of affective human connection, extrapolated from the written text, experienced in “real time,” as it were, and ultimately presumed to be ethically beneficial to the reader.

The Second Printing Revolution

Undoubtedly, a certain logic of material disappearance was present from the beginnings of the development of printing technologies in fifteenth-century Europe.50 As we will explore in several chapters of this study, the impacts of typography on letterforms and page layouts came quickly. By the 1530s in France, just sixty odd years after the arrival of the first printing press in Paris, the typographic page, with its roman typeface and single-column layout privileging the source text at the expense of glosses and commentary, looked more like a modern printed page today than it did the late medieval manuscripts that the first printers were initially imitating only a few decades earlier.51 But the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on which this study concentrates were decisive. It is something of a truism in book history to state that the technology of movable-type printing was still in the late eighteenth century not all that far removed from the first printing presses as developed by Gutenberg and other early printers three hundred years before. Adjudged against the profound impacts of mechanization in the nineteenth century, the changes can seem modest. Moreover, rather than big breakthroughs, the evolution of printing between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries consisted in a cumulative series of smaller innovations and new uses of printing technologies, as called forth by shifting conditions at the intersection of technical experimentation and marketing: mechanical and organizational improvements that afforded the ability to run an edition at more copies and to turn out more editions of specific works, both official and pirated; increased standardization around smaller formats, with the duodecimo coming to dominate in late seventeenth-century France; an expanding information infrastructure for publicizing new books in journals and catalogues, reflecting a growing readership; and the capacity to forge and use lighter and thinner typefaces, among other developments.

Collectively, though, by the eighteenth century, these changes inaugurated a new communications age vis-à-vis the first two centuries of print. Rolf Engelsing influentially described this period as a “Reading Revolution,” manifested in a massive increase in the numbers of books in circulation—Engelsing’s focus was post-1750 Germany—and in the numbers and demographic breadth of readers of those books, which extended to “classes who otherwise did little or no reading,” as noted in one contemporary source cited by Reinhard Wittman’s assessment of Engelsing’s argument.52 Dror Wahrman calls this same period in England “Print 2.0,” foregrounding the “explosion of cheap mass print together with the proliferation of newspapers.”53 In an emerging framework of quantitative growth and textual glut, Engelsing’s “Reading Revolution” thesis held that a new mode of reading took root, characterized by the need to scan many texts rapidly, each perused only one time by readers before they moved on to the next item. Engelsing called this speedy devouring of disposable reading materials offered up at scale by a highly commercialized marketplace “extensive reading,” in contrast with an older “intensive” paradigm shaped by textual scarcity and by the control of powerful institutions such as the church, which made only a narrow range of content available and enforced limited interpretive possibilities. Intensive reading focused on a small canon of works, each of which was reread many times, not for original content, new information, or fresh diversion but as a ritualistic reaffirmation of inclusion in a community of like-minded believers.54

Darnton, among others, took issue with Engelsing’s account, precisely on the basis of the ascendency of the sort of immersive reading I am interested in here and that he explored in the correspondence of Rousseau’s readers. Far from one-off scanning of texts destined for the trash, Rousseau’s avid fan mail attested to deeply ritualized reading practices, articulating a reverence for works that were read and reread many times over. Darnton concluded that “no such revolution took place” and that this particular eighteenth-century public instead “applied an old style religious reading to new material.”55 It is true that the tearful experiences recounted by readers of La Nouvelle Héloïse do not fit neatly into Engelsing’s Leserevolution, which did include novels as objects of “extensive” reading, although in the logic of materials that readers craved for being new and entertaining, materials they sped through before moving on to the next latest work.56

Ultimately, though, similarities with “an old style religious reading” are limited. Old-style reading, as Darnton uses the term, served to integrate readers into a community of believers. But the larger “community” with which Rousseau’s readers had a relationship via their reading was defined by the marketplace, and here the ethical payoff from reading lay not in integration into this group but in separation from it. The letters of Rousseau’s readers bear witness to the fact that they were acutely aware of the commercial public of which they were a part. And invariably, this awareness became the basis for an affirmation of distinction from this collective rather than of adhesion to it: “What a debt virtue would owe you, Monsieur, if all your readers did the same justice to you and your peerless work that I do!” writes one reader in a 1761 letter to Rousseau.57 This characteristic sentiment hints at how essential the market framework was to the conceptions of self-worth and virtue—asserted against the market—that we associate with this reading style, and which, like Darnton, scholars have tended not to understand in light of commercialized experiences (in Darnton’s account, the market only refers to Engelsing’s paradigm of “extensive reading” and plays no role in the “neo-intensive” reading he defines).

In this sense, the sentiment of Rousseau’s reader is in line with contemporary reflections on reading with which I began and which list self-affirming, self-collecting refuge from society (rather than integration or advancement in society) as one key benefit. Of course, as we saw, the reading envisioned by the latter—in the websites we explored, among other places—is avowedly “print reading”—if not the reading of print books per se, then a reading that is deeply shaped by historical patterns for reading print books. What is different in the earlier perspectives is that none of Rousseau’s readers evoke print in the same fashion. They do not talk about “curling up with a book.” They barely evoke the characteristics of print at all in conveying the pleasures of reading; and when they do, it is almost always negative, referring to the material book’s defects as a reliable source for the authorial text (the book comes from an unauthorized or counterfeit edition, repudiated by the author; it is printed shoddily with a lot of mistakes that deviate from the author’s intention; etc.). This presents one of the central methodological challenges faced by a study that argues for the importance of print technology for new reading experiences in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is the silence of readers on this that is new and important. This silence has led to downplaying print and technology as factors. But this is a mistake. The silence does not reflect the unimportance of the book’s materiality or its underlying technologies. It reflects, instead, the ascendency of a reading culture in which readers learned to differentiate the experience of handling the text as a material object from the activities of reading and interpreting the text, sustained by books manufactured to facilitate this triage and uphold the reader’s belief that the text exists in essence as an abstract work, entirely independently of its instantiation as a physical copy. That readers could so easily ignore the physical copy to lose themselves in the text “without noticing” that they were reading (as Diderot had put it), that they could so easily believe that the text offered unmediated access to the author’s innermost thoughts and moral views, and that it delivered, in its narrative, a world that was as real as the one they inhabited, populated by people as real as (or in many instances, more real than) their own friends and families, depended on new technologies and marketing strategies.

These methodological challenges generate a number of paradoxes that we will face throughout this study. Typographic transparency is expressed not just in the archival silences I evoked above but also in a proliferation of increasingly specialized typographic discourses that articulate and celebrate this quality. Chapter 1 explores the explosion of interest in type design in the eighteenth century, for instance in a slew of periodical articles in the 1780s lauding the innovative designs of the Didot brothers. Yet what is worthy of discussion in these appreciation pieces is the type’s lightness and limpidity—that is, precisely the qualities that made text printed using Didot type so effortlessly and enjoyably readable. There is, in other words, a growing but defining disconnect between an emerging language for the appreciation and theorization of type and typography and a reading experience predicated on the unnoticeability of type, which the specialized language foregrounds and promotes. This is both symptomatic—insofar as “average” readers are meant not to “see” the book, the perception of the printed book becomes a specialized skill requiring a distinctive language to articulate—and prescient. The disconnect anticipates today’s sharp bifurcations between the niche discernments of type aficionados, bibliophiles, and letterpress printers, on one hand, and again “average” readers, on the other, indifferent to the qualities so esteemed by the former. At the same time, though, the emerging specialized language is, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a decidedly incipient one. While the debates of eighteenth-century designers and commentators seek to articulate how new typefaces offer easier and more effortless access to a text posited as existing beyond the printed book, the vocabulary is far from consistent. Moreover, there is not in the period an explicit formulation of the principle of “typographic transparency” in the manner of Beatrice Warde from 150 years later. Type design is in its infancy as an autonomous craft and discipline distinct from the older art of typefounding. The language is variable and, as we will see, needs to be interpreted and glossed. The themes, however, are there and represent a shift from the seventeenth century, when “type design” was often no more than using an existing piece of type to trace the outline of the new letter on the steel punch needing to be carved.

Technological Determinism and Its Discontents

In 1998, Adrian Johns published The Nature of the Book, in which he formulated a forceful critique of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s classic arguments about the sudden and dramatic impacts of the introduction of movable-type technology into Europe in her 1979 The Printing Press as Agent of Change. Johns challenged what he deemed Eisenstein’s exclusive interest in the technological “features” of print as determinative of a new media environment identified as “print culture,” in which printed books carried authority and were taken to be the most trustworthy vessels of knowledge and information. Largely focusing on seventeenth-century England, Johns’s expansive study singled out for particular condemnation Eisenstein’s alleged emphasis on “fixity,” the “most important” of print’s qualities, which was the ability to stabilize texts—and the knowledge that texts conveyed—via the ability to reproduce exact copies of those texts, copies that would be considered faithful to an original source. This then allowed for agreement among readers that all were seeing the same work. Johns argued that there was no such inherent fixity to printing technology. Printed copies could be every bit as variable and unreliable as the handwritten copies they “replaced,” and in the first two centuries of the print era, printed copies were systematically unreliable. What ultimately stabilized texts was not the technology of movable-type printing per se, and even less the commercial market for which the first printers produced their books. Inhabited by pirates and counterfeiters, the market exacerbated the problem of nonfixity and unreliability. It was, instead, the formulation over several centuries of a set of conventions, norms, principles, and habits that regulated the use of print. These conventions responded to cultural, social, and political pressures—such as a desire for “propriety” and “civility” in the intellectual realm—that were external to and, in Johns’s argument, often starkly at odds with the technological possibilities and commercial imperatives of the trade in printed books.58 The culture that configured printed books as the most credible form of knowledge and information in the modern era did not, then, ensue from the technology of print and its capacity to produce exact copies of texts at scale. On the contrary, it had to be imposed on the unruly world of print.

This is not the place for a detailed evaluation of Johns’s engagement with Eisenstein.59 But Johns’s influence has been significant more generally for rendering discussions about the impacts of technology on book culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries somewhat fraught. The desire not to be a “technological determinist” has, I suspect, played some role in the downplaying of key aspects of technology and related materialities—specifically those reflecting processes of standardization and commercially driven and mass-public-oriented rationalization—in investigations into reading post-1700. (By contrast, aspects of the materiality of the text that reflect more idiosyncratic, noncommercial, and individualized uses of the book have been more easily taken up in scholarship on seventeenth-and eighteenth-century print.) This is not necessarily a decisive role, but it is one that should be taken into consideration alongside the factors addressed above. I build on Johns in a certain sense, in that I explore the ways that a model of reading shaped by print and typography emerged over time rather than suddenly, as Eisenstein’s focus on the “Printing Revolution” had posited. But my book is also at odds with Johns’s approach and the legacy of refusal, when it comes to print, to put at the core of the discussion, as Eisenstein did, the markets and technologies that changed our relationship to writing and information. As a text technology with specific built-in efficiencies, typography lent itself to some applications more than others. It excelled at the task of copying at scale with the aim to reproduce the “same” text in each copy and was amenable to efforts to capitalize on those capacities for economic profit, as well as for political and administrative reasons. I do not believe that it is “technologically determinist” to observe that printing technologies do certain things very well and other things not so well. Nor does it negate the role of human agents in further developing and refining print’s capacities and in directing these uses and impacts or deny that cultural pressures and demands preceded the development of print and decisively shaped how it was used.

It was the standardization and streamlining of forms that shaped print’s trajectory toward media dominance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, in turn, enabled new experiences of the text predicated on a belief that the material forms—shaped by artisans and hawked by tradespeople—were distinct from the work that was read. From this divergence, I argue, notions of human and empathetic connection emerge between a reader and a character depicted in text; experiences of absorption that were initially criticized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but that have since become the basis for a conceptualization of focus and concentration that we now celebrate while lamenting the threat we see posed to it by the internet; and an ideal of authorship as a personal fount of moral guidance, a reliable or expert source of information, and a disinterested voice of reason and justice.


1. See, e.g., “5 Surprising Health Benefits of Reading Books,” Mindfood, July 10, 2020,; Anne-Laure Le Cunff, “The Science-Based Benefits of Reading,” Ness Labs,; and Emily Lockhart, “Read Up: 6 Fantastic Health Benefits for Book Worms,” Activebeat, June 16, 2016, Because these pages are on current-interest websites, they are subject to change. The initial citations for this introduction were established in May 2021; they were checked for viability in October 2023. The cited pages were overall quite stable, but two years later, a small number of the articles had been changed, replaced, or deleted.

2. “The Top 5 Benefits of Reading Books,” Raven Reads, March 16, 2018, accessed May 2021,; “8 Benefits of Reading (or Ways Reading Makes You Better at Life),” LifeDev, June 1, 2009,; Catherine Winter, “10 Benefits of Reading: Why You Should Read Every Day,” LifeHack,; Brendan Brown, “14 Reasons Why Reading Is Good for Your Health,” Insider, Dec. 12, 2016,

3. “Three Types of Literacy,” National Center for Education Statistics,

4. “The Importance of Reading: Why We Should Read Books Every Day,” Young Readers Foundation,

5. “7 Ways Adults Can Reap the Benefits of Reading,” Blinkist,

6. The next most frequent benefit associated with reading fiction, appearing in four of the lists, is the enhancement of critical thinking skills resulting from the need to follow a complicated plot, as exemplified by a mystery novel.

7. Abigail Wise, “8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read a (Real) Book,” Real Simple, Sept. 5, 2019, The reference to the article in Science is to David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 3 42, no. 6 156 (Oct. 2 013): 3 77–80,

8. “The Importance of Reading.”

9. “7 Ways Adults Can Reap the Benefits of Reading.” Under the subheading “Reading Improves Focus and Concentration,” this site notes: “Studies have found that a book or longer piece of text absorbs our entire focus.” This is about the only instance in the lists I have identified in which an alternative to a “book” is articulated in this way. That said, the article begins with an image of a woman reading a printed book.

10. Winter, “10 Benefits of Reading.”

11. Laura Schocker, “6 Science-Backed Reasons to Go Read a Book Right Now,” Hufpost, Oct. 12, 2013, updated Dec. 6, 2017,

12. Stephanie Class, “10 Benefits of Reading Books,” Campbell County Public Library, Feb. 21, 2018, (“Being ‘emotionally transported’ by a book has been shown to cause boosts in empathy”); “The Importance of Reading” (“Books expand your horizons, letting you see other countries, other people and so many things you have never seen or imagined”).

13. “10 Reasons Why Reading Books Will Save Your Life,”, (“Unlike blog posts and news articles, sitting down with a book takes long periods of focus and concentration, which at first is hard to do”).

14. Wise, “8 Science-Backed Reasons to Read a (Real) Book.”

15. “7 Ways Adults Can Reap the Benefits of Reading.”

16. “Top 10 Health Benefits of Reading,” HealthFitnessRevolution, May 15, 2015,

17. “10 Reasons Why Reading Books Will Save Your Life”; “7 Ways Adults Can Reap the Benefits of Reading”; “The Top 5 Benefits of Reading Books”; and Mahayla Palachuk, “The Benefits of Reading,” ASU Prep Digital, May 15, 2020,

18. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 122.

19. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2011), 111.

20. Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies, 118.

21. Carr, The Shallows, 75.

22. Steven Johnson, “How the E-book Will Change the Way We Read and Write,” Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2009.

23. Peter Stallybrass, “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” in Books and Readers in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Anderson and Elizabeth Sauer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 47.

24. A classic study on the adoption of the codex by early Christians is Colin Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983). The authors enumerate the reasons for this in chapter 9, including factors such as economy (the codex allows for both sides of a surface to be used for writing), compactness, comprehensiveness, convenience, and ease of reference—that is, the ability “to locate a particular passage in a Biblical text” (50). While Roberts and Skeat downplay these “practical considerations,” Stallybrass highlights the role of “random access” consultation for the massive success of this form. See Stallybrass, “Books and Scrolls,” 42–43. See also Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2006); and Matthew D. C. Larsen and Mark Letteney, “Christians and the Codex: Generic Materiality and Early Gospel Traditions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 27, no. 3 (2019): 383–415.

25. Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography (1972; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1995), 84–107, illustrates the orders in which pages had to be arranged and locked into a frame, in a process called imposition, for all the different formats, from folio to in-24.

26. The print biases of the field of “book history” have been powerfully critiqued by classicists and medievalists who point to the fact that books long predated print. See Alexandra Gillespie, “The History of the Book,” New Medieval Literatures 9 (2007): 245–86. Among the more notorious examples of this bias is the title of one of the field’s foundational texts, Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s study of the development and impacts of print in Europe, L’apparition du livre (Paris: Les éditions Albin, 1958), translated by David Gerard into English as The Coming of the Book (New York: Verso, 1985).

27. Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2008), 39, 42.

28. Robert Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity,” in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage, 1984), 231, 250.

29. To evoke a few other pertinent studies, in addition to Hunt and Darnton, in what is an extensive bibliography, much of which focuses wholly or partly on the cases of Rousseau and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in France, and on Samuel Richardson in England, see Claude Labrosse, Lire au XVIIIe siècle: “La Nouvelle Héloïse” et ses lecteurs (Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1985); Jean Goulemot and Didier Masseau, “Lettres au Grand Homme; ou Quand les lecteurs écrivent,” in La lettre à la croisée de l’individuel et du social, ed. Mireille Bossis (Paris: Éditions Kimé, 1994), 39–48; John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); and Louise Curran, Samuel Richardson and the Art of Letter-Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

30. Monique Vincent, “Le Mercure galant et son public féminin,” in Romantische Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte/Cahiers d’histoire des littératures romanes 3, no. 3 (1979): 82.

31. Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, 43.

32. Paul Saenger, Spaces between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) and Malcolm B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) offer two examples. Saenger’s conclusions, in particular, have been contested both by classicists, who demonstrate that silent reading was well known and practiced in antiquity, and medievalists and early modernists, who show that oralized reading continued well into the modern era. See R. W. McClutcheon’s survey of this debate from the perspective of classicists, “Silent Reading in Antiquity and the Future History of the Book,” Book History 18 (2015): 1–32; and Armando Petrucci’s “Reading in the Middle Ages,” in Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture, ed. and trans. Charles M. Radding (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995). I return to this issue in chapters 2 and 5. In her presentation of the problem within the history of reading, Karin Littau emphasizes the disconnect between cultural historical approaches to reading, which focus on materiality, and literary and interpretative approaches, which highlight the text. She frames her study Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies, and Bibliomania (Cambridge: Polity, 2006) as bringing together these two disciplinary approaches (1–3).

33. Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton, “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy,” Past & Present 129 (Nov. 1990): 30–78; William Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); George Hoffman, Montaigne’s Career (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999).

34. Diderot, “Éloge de Richardson,” in Œuvres esthétiques (Paris: Garnier frères, 1969), 33.

35. Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau,” 223–24.

36. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 52–65 (this was originally published in French as Le sens pratique [Paris: Éditions de minuit, 1980]). Bourdieu writes that habitus produces “practices and representations without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them” (53).

37. Louis Bollioud-Mermet published De la bibliomanie in 1761 (The Hague). The first characteristic of this disorder is represented by the “man without letters or talents, whose only skill is to show off [faire parade] a collection of books that his ineptness renders useless to him” (12). Charles Nodier’s later comparison of the “bibliophile” and the “biblomaniac” returns to the same themes; see his “L’amateur des livres,” in Bulletin du bibliophile 6 (June 1842): 243–54: “The bibliophile connects book with book, after having submitted each to a thorough investigation of its meaning and intelligence; the bibliomaniac piles books up one on top of the other without looking at them” (249).

38. In Writing Machines (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), N. Katherine Hayles highlights the idea of “inscription technologies” to call attention to the metaphors, including that of the “book,” which mediate between text and material platforms (22).

39. Stanley Morison, “First Principles of Typography,” Fleuron: A Journal of Typography 7 (1930): 62. Morison writes that printing “is essentially a means of multiplying” (61).

40. Christopher De Hamel, The Book: A History of the Bible (New York: Phaidon, 2005), 119–21; Lori Anne Ferrell, The Bible and the People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 29–38. As De Hamel points out, standardization in the organization of chapters was driven by the shift to single-volume formats in the thirteenth century (119–20). De Hamel also notes the inclusion and standardization of new chapter prologues (in addition to those of Jerome) and the use of layout devices such as running titles and line breaks for new chapters. Mary Rouse and Richard Rouse describe the reference tools that would in turn be integral to the usability of printed books: alphabetized concordances of names (and alphabetization in general), arabic numbering, and the standardization and numbering of biblical chapters. In the process, old tools that were not reliant on chapter numbering—such as the Canon Tables of Eusebius, which had been widely used up to this point—became outdated and were dropped. See Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), esp. chapter 7, “The Development of Research Tools in the Thirteenth Century,” 221–55.

41. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 1:53.

42. Joseph Dane’s introduction to bibliography, What Is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), introduces the key conceptual difference between a “book” and “book-copy,” as well as the concept of an “edition,” early on (7–11). This distinction is of course critical to the discipline of bibliography, which seeks to extrapolate from individual copies, with all their idiosyncrasies and variations, an ideal copy representing the work as it was intended by the author to be read by the public via the edition.

43. Eisenstein, The Printing Press, 1:132; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); Michael Warner, Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), xiii.

44. Alexandre Jérôme Loyseau de Mauléon to Rousseau, Feb. 18, 1761, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Correspondance complète, 52 vols., ed. R. A. Leigh (Banbury, UK: Voltaire Foundation, 1965–98), letter 1302, 8:130–32. The letter is included in the Electronic Enlightenment database, ed. Robert McNamee et al., version 2.4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), (subscription required).

45. Meredith L. McGill, “Echocriticism: Repetition and the Order of Texts,” American Literature 88, no. 1 (March 2016): 7.

46. Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should Be Invisible,” in The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography, ed. Henry Jacob (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1956), 11–17. Warde first published her essay under the pseudonym Paul Beaujon in 1932.

47. Claire Bourne, Typographies of Performance in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 2.

48. Morison, “First Principles of Typography,” 61; Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-works. Applied to the Art of Printing, 2 vols (London: Joseph Moxon, 1683), 2:220. Bourne cites both in Typographies of Performance, 2.

49. “The Importance of Reading” (see n. 4 above).

50. See Katie Chenoweth, The Prosthetic Tongue: Printing Technology and the Rise of the French Language (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). Chenoweth’s illuminating study shows the impacts on vernaculars of printing technology that, between 1529 (when Tory’s Champ fleury was printed) and 1550, led to the establishment of standardized rules for grammar and orthography. This submitting of language to technological rationality will, at the same time, allow for a new perception of the vernacular to take shape—in the case of Chenoweth’s study, French—as a “natural” or “maternal” medium of self-expression. At the core of the emerging technology, and of its uses, in Chenoweth’s account, is an analogous logic of self-effacement: printing will “both intensify the technicity of the tongue and conceal that same technicity by producing new cultural fantasies of naturalness, nativeness, appropriation, and presence” (2).

51. To be clear, printers did not invent these forms. They took shape in the world of manuscripts in the centuries before the advent of printing in Europe. Italian humanists starting in the fourteenth century developed a page for Latin and Greek texts with rounded and separated letterforms, a single column, and minimal commentary, which was meant to contrast with the graphical conventions of late medieval scholarly culture. For reasons I will discuss in chapter 1, printers gravitated to these features and generalized their use for many more categories of text beyond works of Latin and Greek antiquity.

52. Rolf Engelsing, “Die Perioden des Lesergeschichte in der Neuzeit,” Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens 10 (1970): 9 46–1002. Wittman offers a summary and critique of Engelsing’s argument in Reinhard Wittmann, “Was There a Reading Revolution at the End of the Eighteenth Century?,” in A History of Reading in the West, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 284–312.

53. Dror Wahrman, Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 20. Wahrman titles chapter 1 “Print 2.0 c. 1700: A New Media Regime.” Riffing off the English title of Febvre and Martin’s classic study cited above (see n. 26), Betty Schellenberg describes the period 1740–70 in England as “The Second Coming of the Book,” in Producing the Eighteenth-Century Book: Writers and Publishers in England, 1650–1800, ed. Laura Runge and Pat Rogers (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), 30–53. Lennard Davis argues that “print became legitimized” in the second half of the seventeenth century, as evidenced by the fact that by the end of the century, the Bank of England began to use print for monetary notes. Lennard J. Davis, Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 138–39. Laurie Maguire identifies an intermediate era in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries after print “had left the cradle” but before it had become fully normalized, during which all involved—authors, printers, and readers—were more conscious of the medium and engaged it in more experimental and less consistent ways. Laurie Maguire, The Rhetoric of the Page (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 12–14.

54. For perspectives on the “Reading Revolution,” see also Roger Chartier, “Laborers and Voyagers: From the Text to the Reader,” Diacritics 22, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 49–61; and Michel Fournier, “La ‘révolution’ de la lecture romanesque au XVIIIe siècle en France: Institutionnalisation de la lecture et émergence d’une nouvelle sensibilité,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 54, no. 2 (2007): 55–73.

55. Darnton, “Readers Respond to Rousseau,” 251.

56. For a summary of the place of the novel in Engelsing’s “Reading Revolution” thesis (and a critique of Engelsing’s account), see Joost Loek, “Reconsidering the Reading Revolution: The Thesis of the ‘Reading Revolution’ and a Dutch Bookseller’s Clientele around 1800,” Poetics 26 (1999): 289–307.

57. Unknown to Rousseau, Feb. 5, 1761: “Que la vertu vous aura d’obligation, Monsieur, si tous vos lecteurs vous rendent et à vôtre ouvrage sans pareil la même justice que moi!” Correspondance complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, 8:62–63 (letter 1263); and Electronic Enlightenment.

58. Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Books: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1–57. Johns writes: “The sources of print culture are therefore to be sought in civility as much as in technology, and in historical labors as much as in immediate causes and effect. The ‘printing revolution,’ if there was one, consisted of changes in the conventions of handling and investing credit in textual materials, as much as in transformations in their manufacture” (35–36).

59. This engagement strikes me as often unnecessarily tendentious. One quick but illuminating example is Johns’s misconstrual of Eisenstein’s principle of “fixity.” In The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein associates “fixity” not with the ability to reproduce identical copies of a text but with print’s “preservative powers,” which consisted in print’s capacity to generate many copies of a text. As a result, printed works are not dependent for preservation on the physical durability of any single copy. What Johns calls fixity corresponds to the feature Eisenstein labeled “standardization,” which was, indeed, the capacity of printing technology to replicate “identical copies.” See Eisenstein, The Printing Press, 2:80, 2:113–26. Michael Warner’s Lettres of the Republic (5–6) similarly takes Eisenstein to task for “technological determinism.”