Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Norms for reading postures

I recently responded to a query on the SHARP discussion list that may be of interest:
My SHARP query: in conjunction with my research on graphic novels, I'm looking at the normative act of reading--how readers are supposed to use their hands, not move their heads, NOT move their lips, not move their fingers over the words, not underline passages, not write in the margins, etc., and how they are supposed to sit rather than stand or lie down or kneel, etc. (except with regard to public readings of liturgical texts, obviously). I'd be interested to know if anyone has done work or is presently working on the relationship of hierarchical codes inscribed in the book object to the physical acts involved in reading. My sense is that reading was physically engrossing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and progressively less so in the 19th and 20th. Morris, Gill, Morison, Warde all have notes that point to the disembodiment of reading, and I assume that somewhere there must be a mid-20th century book or film or filmstrip that actually depicts for children how they are supposed to comport themselves nicely as they read, but I haven't located one, and if anyone has, I'd be grateful for a citation.

Michael Joseph
Rutgers University Libraries
My response:

In compiling and analyzing a pictorial database for the Iconic Books Project, we noticed the significant role of art in promulgating norms of reading behavior, especially posture. This appears as early as ancient Egyptian portraiture and ritual texts, shows up famously (though not uniquely either in time or culture) in late medieval and renaissance depictions of Mary's Annunciation, and remains a prominent feature of contemporary illustrative photography and art.

Posture varies, of course, depending on the material form of the text and also the situation of its use. In many religious communities from antiquity to the present, for example, liturgical reading takes place standing while devotional reading is usually depicted in a seated posture--often simultaneously in congregations where the liturgist reads the scripture from the pulpit while congregants follow along in their own Bibles. Maybe the increasing publication of genres for private use has led to emphasizing sitting modes of reading to the point of disembodiment (an idea that echoes devotional, even mystical reading practices), but I should point out that standing to read publicly remains the norm, even (especially?) in academic conference presentations.

Beyond these general observations, though, I can't point out much specific bibliography. Study of the embodied and material uses of texts is in its infancy, especially comparative study that begins to generalize about norms of reading and their social significance. That makes it, for me at least, a very exciting subject to work on!

Jim Watts
Syracuse University

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