“Reading has a history. But how can we recover it?” writes Robert Darnton, referring to the daunting task that the phenomenology of reading presents to the historian. Recovering the reading history of individuals is at least as fraught with uncertainty.
This is an attempt to trace the reading experience of three generations of one family, beginning with a newly-literate generation living in Cornwall in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Some of the books that generation read still exist, in some cases with the marginalia of their readers. Others only remain in a more insubstantial afterlife in my own memory.
The essence of the reading experience of any individual at any one time is a matter of tantalizingly chimerical conjecture. The content of books, divorced from their material existence, persists in endless transformations. Atomized particles, fragments and phrases live on as quotations in reference works and student essays. Alongside half-remembered episodes from long lost novels, the ghostly presences of fictional characters, they persist in the consciousness, housed in a chaotic mental library, presided over by an anarchic defiance of all systems of classification.