Tag Archives: Book History

Why reading feeds our brain

A recent New York Times article entitled, ‘Your Brain on Fiction’ by Annie Murphy Paul highlighted emerging research into the neuroscience of reading.  This article brought up several points which seem to be extremely relevant to scholars studying historical reading.  It also prompted me to ask why is there such disconnect between the fields of educational neuroscience and educational theory, and the study of historical reading?

Paul’s article cited several new studies which map various types of brain activity while individuals perform reading tasks.  What is emerging, is compelling new evidence about the power of reading to simulate real-life experience.  Researchers have found that reading words like ‘cinnamon’ that have a strong smell association activates parts of the brain used in olfactory processing.  Similarly reading descriptions of actions like ‘kicking a ball’ stimulate not only the parts of the brain used for decoding language but also parts of the brain associated with physical movement of the legs.  Paul concluded ‘The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.’

Reading feeds our brains, in similar ways to real-life experience.  We can even improve our social skills and interpersonal empathy by immersing ourselves in the emotional life of fictional characters.  This is powerful corroborative evidence to anecdotal claims for the power of reading.  Eighteenth-century debates over the ‘usefulness’ of various types of literature, the impact of novels on impressionable readers, and the ability of texts to serve as vicarious experience take on a whole new dimension.  What could a study of the impact of eighteenth-century travel literature reveal if it was underpinned by this type of neuroscience?  Or what possibilities exist for explaining the rash of suicides which followed the reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther?  With so much potential why haven’t more book history scholars called on educational neuroscience in their research?

Well, it only took a small amount of digging to discover some partial explanations.  A 2011 review of neuroscience research on reading in the Reading Research Quarterly by George G. Hruby et al, provided a much more detailed analysis of resent research than Paul’s brief article.  The first hurdle for book history scholars is the technical nature of this research, which at times required detailed knowledge of brain functions in order to be usefully applied.  However even non-experts can begin to understand some of the implications of this research, and book history scholars could usefully apply many of these findings to historical theories of reading and educational practice.  In some cases this may justify a more serious look at historical concerns around reading practice.

A second hurdle, and one glossed over by Paul, is the conditional nature of many of these neurological findings.  Many of the techniques now available for brain imaging can only give us a rough estimate of where things are happening in the brain, and are still very conditional.  So while the brain may treat reading about kicking a ball in a similar way to actually kicking a ball, is the same true for experiences, smells, or emotions that have never been encountered in real-life?

Although there are difficulties with interpreting and making use of educational neuroscience research, there are also immense rewards waiting for the brave book historian willing to engage with them, and I for one would like to see more interdisciplinary work of this type.  This research also confirms the benefits of reading, not only for the content it can convey, but also for the ways in which it enlarges our lives and our brains.

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The Worlds of Mathew Carey- Part 2

The much-anticipated second half of the transatlantic conference ‘Ireland, America and the Worlds of Mathew Carey’ is now over.  The second part of this conference, held in Trinity College Dublin on 17-19 November filled in many of the gaps left by the first three days of papers in Philadelphia, while continuing many of the conversations begun on the other side of the Atlantic.

Like the Philadelphia conference, full versions of the papers from Dublin have been made available online on a private wiki.  (Contact Johanna Archbold at TCD for access.)  Meanwhile the papers from Philadelphia will be maintained online by the McNeil Center for the foreseeable future.  So anyone unable to attend, one or both parts of the conference, should still be able to view the papers.

The Dublin conference began with an excellent keynote lecture by Richard B. Sher of the New Jersey Institute of Technology titled ‘Piracy of Patriotic Publishing? Conflicting visions of the reprint trade in late eighteenth-century Britain, Ireland, and America’.  Sher described the ‘baggage’ Mathew Carey brought with him from Dublin to Philadelphia.  In this instance it was the Irish tradition of patriotic and heroic reprinting which he had learned from the members of the Dublin book trades.  Here Sher echoed what was an important theme throughout both halves of the conference – the importance of Carey’s early life in Dublin to his later American career.

Sher’s talk, along with the first panel of papers on Friday morning gave the Dublin conference more of a book history focus.  Papers by Molly O’Hagan Hardy, Carl Keyes, and myself (Sarah Crider Arndt) discussed aspects of Carey’s printing publishing business in the US.  Here the question of Carey’s position on race was again raised by Hardy’s paper.  Later James Kelly spoke on Carey’s Dublin paper the Volunteer’s Journal, and Andrew Fagal spoke on the reception of Carey’s Navel History by members of Congress and the Republican party.  This focus on Carey’s printing and publishing career addressed a slight gap in the Philadelphia program, although it is important to note that Carey’s role as a publisher of American literature was not covered by any of the papers at either half of the Conference.  It is interesting to note that one of the big questions which came out of the Philadelphia conference was whether Carey was an innovator or simply an aggregator.  While many of the papers on political economy came down on the side of aggregator, both Carl Keyes and myself noted that Carey was often quite innovative in terms of his printing and publishing business, taking advantage of new markets, advertising strategies, and business models.

One area where the Dublin conference addressed a noticeable gap in the Philadelphia program, was in terms of the other members of Carey’s family.  A highlight from Friday’s program was the panel titled ‘House of Carey’ which included a paper by James N. Green on Mathew Carey’s relationship to Benjamin Franklin, and papers by Niall Gillespie on William Paulet Carey and Anne Markey on John Carey.  Together these papers painted a picture of a very prickly collection of brothers, often at odds with each other and the world around them.  One very noticeable absence was the mention of any female member of the Carey family.  Only Karen Kauffman’s paper on Carey’s philanthropic activities among the working poor, given in Philadelphia, significantly addressed Carey’s relationship to anyone of the female persuasion.  Although Padhraig Higgins, in his closing talk in Dublin did discuss the way in which Carey was effected by the very gendered political climate in Dublin.

Political economy continued to be an important topic of discussion in Dublin.  Eoin Magennis did an excellent job of describing Carey’s Irish milieu and the range of opinions regarding free trade which Carey absorbed in Dublin.  Daniel Peart meanwhile demonstrated how Carey later acted on these views in his campaign to influence the US tariff policy.  Finally, a paper submitted by Marc-William Palen, who was unfortunately unable to present the material himself, outlined Frederik List’s influence on the political economic theories of Henry Charles Carey.

In the last panel session on Saturday, Michael Brown gave a very interesting paper placing Carey within a world he described as the ‘Green Atlantic’.  As part of this world Carey was steeped in the eighteenth century culture of social enlightenment.  His paper, offered up several new lenses for gaining insight into Carey’s identity.

Several other papers asked the question of how singular a figure was Mathew Carey, by putting his life in contrast to other Irish radicals.  While these papers were a bit mixed, they did help to place Carey within the context of the ‘Green Atlantic’ as described by Brown, and within a broader wave of Irish emigrants.

During the final wrap-up session Dan Richter of the McNeil Center acknowledged that as a result of these conference we now know much more about the man Mathew Carey, but he posed the question of what these conferences can tell us about the worlds of Mathew Carey?  David Dickson responded by pointing out that Carey can serve as an early precursor to later politically active Irish-Catholic immigrants.  Carey’s life also highlights the importance of personal networks to individuals within the Atlantic world.  Studying Carey’s experience may open new questions on the Irish diaspora.  Michael Brown added that this conference has shown how Mathew Carey, like many other radicals of his day, read America as the model of how Ireland should be.  While these are both good answers, they display an understandable bias towards issues of concern in Irish history.  It would be very interesting indeed if this question could have been posed to the audience of the Philadelphia conference as well.  What different answers and concerns might have been highlighted there?

Overall, both halves of the ‘Worlds of Mathew Carey’ conference have proven to be very exciting.  They have brought scholars together from across the Atlantic and across disciplinary lines, and they have gone some way towards integrating the many faces of Mathew Carey.  Further scholarship stemming from this conference should prove to be useful to both Carey scholars and to those interested in the wider Atlantic world of his time.

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Books as History: A Review

In the last few months David Pearson has come out with a revised edition of his 2008 book Books as history: the importance of books beyond their texts.  This book, published by Oak Knoll Press and the British Library discusses the ways in which books, as objects, beyond the text they carry, should be studied as historical  artifacts.

Book Cover

In the book, Pearson explains the evolution of books as objects.  He traces developments in paper technology, binding, illustration, and printing to show how each of these processes contributed to the final product.  Particular emphasis is put on the uniqueness of individual books before the advent of mass production.  This is used as one of the primary reasons for the preservation of ‘old books’ rather than the adoption of digital surrogates which simply re-create the text.

One of the reasons for this new revised edition, is to address many of the developments in digital books and surrogates which have rapidly expanded over the last few years.  The first chapter of this book discusses new technology like the Amazon Kindle.  Though this chapter is freshly revised, and recently published its perspective on the ever quickening pace of technological innovation seems dated already.  (Highlighting one of the problems with printed books).  Pearson believes that the time when books will no longer be the primary means of transmitting ideas is in the forseeable future (if not already here), and that in light of that we need to reconsider our relationship to books and libraries.  In these chapters, Pearson is at his most successful, provoking thought and encouraging mindfulness in our interactions with books.

Since this text focuses on the appearance and physical aspects of books, it should be no surprise that it is beautiful in and of itself.  Perhaps resembling a coffee table book more than your average academic tome, it sports glossy images on nearly every page.  These visual examples are perhaps the most valuable part of the book.  Because of these images, Pearson’s work would make an excellent introductory textbook for bibliographical studies or the history of the book.  For institutions that lack rare books collections, or historical libraries, Pearson’s book provides and excellent opportunity to view the physical characteristics of the objects he discusses.  This is further enhanced by a concise list of further reading and a visual case study at the end of the book.

I have two slight criticisms to offer.  The first, which has been noted before, would be that the images in the book are often separated from the text in which they are discussed making for awkward flipping between pages.  The second, is that the book has a very heavily English bias.  While this is understandable given the author’s position as the Director of Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery at the City of London, this may make it less-relateable to readers who are not familiar with English history and literature.

Overall, this book is well worth a read for anyone interested in book history.  The relatively inexpensive price, at less than twenty pounds, makes it a worthy investment as an introduction to the bibliographic arts for students or enthusiasts.

 

 

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