Jannenga on Williams, 'The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home'

Abigail Williams
Stephanie Jannenga

Abigail Williams. The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 368 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20829-0

Reviewed by Stephanie Jannenga (Kent State University) Published on H-Early-America (February, 2021) Commissioned by Kelly K. Sharp (Furman University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55821

In the opening vignette of The Social Life of Books, in which Abigail Williams describes the literary activities of Dorothy and William Wordsworth one eighteenth-century spring evening, she succinctly states the central premise of her work: what people read was less important than how they read it. Instead of taking the standard approach to literature, in which scholars explore the plots and themes of various works to understand better the period in which the authors wrote their works, Williams approaches her topic more historically by looking at how readers used literature as part of their social and domestic culture. Her primary argument refutes the previously accepted theory by other scholars, such as Reinhard Wittman, that eighteenth-century Europe experienced a “reading revolution” in which improved literacy rates and greater access to books transformed the literary experience from an oral group activity primarily focused on religious works to an individual pastime consisting of the silent reading of secular pieces.[1] While Williams readily admits that there was an increase in the practice of silent reading, she does not accept that shared reading became a thing of the past and provides numerous examples which support her contention that readers continued to take part in and laud social reading.

The Social Life of Books consists of eight chapters of relatively equal length that explore different aspects of the eighteenth-century reading experience. The first, “How to Read,” while seemingly self-explanatory, is in fact not an exploration of how Brits became literate. Rather, it explores the ways in which people tried to become better orators. Taking a cue from their clergymen, many undertook the study of elocution. The elocution movement crossed both socioeconomic and gender lines, with everyone from royalty to journeymen apprentices and both men and women participating in the practice. Chapter 2, “Reading and Sociability,” explores social reading in the domestic sphere. Williams explains that the home was an advantageous place for such socialization not only because it was a more practical and cheaper venue than public spaces but because reading aloud in the home could serve both recreational and educational purposes. The women in the household could be entertained as they did needlepoint and other handicrafts while the servants and maids learned moral lessons as they worked.

Chapters 3 and 4, “Using Books” and “Access to Reading,” explore the reason eighteenth-century Britons continued the practice of social reading and how they went about obtaining the books they read, respectively. Williams explains that one of the reasons reading aloud remained an integral part of British recreation was the simple fact that light was a scarce resource. With fewer daylight hours in the fall and winter, reading in the late afternoons and evenings necessitated candlelight. Purchasing large quantities of candles, however, could be expensive. Thus, social reading held appeal because it required the use of only one candle but provided entertainment for an entire group of people. The poor state of ophthalmology in the eighteenth century was another reason why social reading was desirable. One individual with good eyesight could easily entertain a roomful of guests who may have otherwise had difficulty reading to themselves due to various eye ailments. Beyond the practical reasons of light and sight, reading aloud remained a popular form of book consumption because it allowed listeners to dip in and out of various books and genres without having to commit to an entire work.

Williams’s discussion of selective reading dovetails nicely into the fourth chapter’s exploration of book access. Since disposable income varied widely across the classes, six-schilling books would have been too rich for the blood of most middling-sort families and all laborers. Social reading provided one solution to this restricted access. Wealthy family, friends, and employers, who could afford such expenditures, could provide their less well-off counterparts with entrance into the literary worlds they had only heard about. Another point of access to reading was the cheaper alternatives to books: newspapers and magazines. Access to reading materials received a final boost from subscription libraries. The British people’s voracious response to the increased access to reading materials demonstrates their love not only for reading, but for those activities which surrounded it, especially the increased opportunity for contact with people outside of one’s household.

“Verse at Home” and “Drama and Recital,” Williams’s fourth and fifth chapters, respectively, explore the approach to and appreciation of the two genres in Britain. Williams explains that viewing eighteenth-century poetry through its social use better reveals the works’ themes and the connections that people had to them. Of the various ways that people enjoyed poetry, one of the popular practices was commonplacing, in which the reader copied short sections of text into manuscript books. In addition to personal commonplace books, the eighteenth-century saw the introduction of printed commonplace books, with short quotations from English poetry arranged according to themes. These publications, like their manuscript counterparts, were shared among friends, with many a reader trying to pass off the witty verse as their own. Such plagiarism, however, would be nearly impossible with one of the other popular genres of the period: drama.

Despite the moral misgivings some members of eighteenth-century society had regarding attendance at staged productions, the reading aloud of plays at home was not only perfectly acceptable but considered a possible source of moral improvement. The most popular dramas read in the home came from the pen of William Shakespeare, but his was not the only hand responsible for the lines people read. Self-appointed moral authority and editor Thomas Bowlder published an adaptation of the Bard’s works, titled The Family Shakespeare (1818). Bowlder took issue with what he viewed as the moral pitfalls of Shakespeare’s work and took it upon himself to censor the plots and language of the original editions. In an effort to expand the reach of the Bard’s work even further, essayist and poet Charles Lamb novelized Shakespeare’s work in the form of Tales from Shakespeare (1807), a book meant for children. Despite Bowlder and Lamb’s attempted sanitization of the dramatic art form, some members of the social elite rebelled. Those with the necessary means erected stages in their homes, commissioned the creation of lavish costumes, and printed playbills for those who attended their amateur performances. According to Williams, the concurrent existence of these two competing visions of drama demonstrates that “the home was a space in which the morality of culture was both policed and willfully transgressed” (p. 203).

The author’s last two chapters, “Fictional Worlds” and “Piety and Knowledge,” explore the social reading of novels, short story collections, and nonfiction works. While the rise in popularity of the novel in the eighteenth century might have seemed like the death knell of reading aloud in the home due to its individualistic nature, quite the opposite was true. In fact, Williams argues, the eighteenth-century perception that novel reading was a dangerous individual exercise, especially for women, was likely responsible for the practice of placing novels at the center of communal reading exercises. Reading aloud made it clear that the world of the novel and real life were two separate and distinct environments. Novels, however, were not the only fictional prose that readers consumed. In fact, short-form reading in magazines, story collections, and jestbooks far exceeded the publication of full-length novels. These short-form works, however, appealed to a new reading audience, that is, the lower classes, and provided reading-circle orators with jokes and stories to delight their audiences with as if they were their own. This was the exact opposite approach to that taken toward the communal reading of novels, in which the orator’s delineation between fiction and the real world was the gold standard.

While fictional works played an important part in the preservation of social reading in eighteenth-century Britain, contemporary library catalogues and diaries show that the true mainstays of communal reading were religious, historical, and scientific texts. Williams explains that Brits consumed an inordinate amount of nonfiction works for multiple reasons: piety, self-improvement, entertainment, and an unwillingness to immerse oneself in imagined worlds. Following church services on Sunday morning, families and friends gathered to continue their religious education in the home through the social reading of the Bible and various devotional works. As for those who sought self-improvement and entertainment in their reading of nonfiction, one of the most popular subjects was history. According to bluestocking Mary Delany, history was an especially useful subject because it allowed those individuals who had become overly engrossed in novels to be weaned off them yet still participate in the communal reading of a narrative. Last, for those uninterested in the imagined worlds of literature, scientific texts reimagined for use in polite society provided readers with access to the real, yet still fascinating, world of the workings of the universe. Ultimately, the goal of all communal reading of nonfiction was to facilitate a well-informed conversation of the spiritual and intellectual world outside the home but within the safety of its confines.

Williams’s work is an important contribution to several different areas of scholarship. It deftly surveys the reading interests, performative proclivities, and home life of Britons in the eighteenth century. Williams’s delving into the reading interests of the period should appeal to scholars working in the field of English literature as well as the fields of intellectual history and the history of education. Of particular interest is Williams’s explanation of how the British approached religious, historical, and scientific texts in the home. Readers appear to have read these works for their use as vehicles for intellectual and entertaining conversation rather than for the specific arguments their authors were trying to make. For instance, social reading discussion of the execution of Charles I revolved around the commemoration of the event rather than the historical argument about whether Parliament’s decision to execute the king was justifiable. Despite such focus being placed on the entertainment value of nonfiction works, the fact that they were discussed at all is important because they likely contributed to the education of those in the reading circle as well as any others in the household within earshot. As with her discussion of reading interests, Williams’s exploration of performance in the eighteenth-century home should appeal to scholars of both theater and dramatic literature, and her study of British home life will likely be of interest to scholars who specialize in the sociological study of family and gender dynamics. Outside of its scholarly appeal, The Social Life of Books would be an enticing read for anyone who enjoys time spent with a good book.


[1]. Reinhard Wittman, “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 (Oxford: Polity Press, 1999), 284-312.





Citation: Stephanie Jannenga. Review of Williams, Abigail, The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55821

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