I’ve just finished “reading” Richard Altick’s 1957 The English Common Reader, and I must say it’s held up very well. There’s just a frightening amount of research and scholarship in the thing, and it’s all put together very readably. It’s particularly interesting to read in the Age of Twitter given that the periodical press was, after all, a form of new media–or more precisely, a new platform for social networks. The biggest eye-opener for me, the thing I’m most embarrassed not to have realized before, is just how important price was to readership. Yes, I knew that not few could afford to buy the three-deckers so a lot of people read novels serialized and/or at circulating libraries, but it really does make a difference to put a quantitative price to things. One of the biggest political struggles of the nineteenth century was the War of the Unstamped, a fight to remove duties placed on periodicals carrying news items. Because of this duty, daily newspapers like the Times, at five pence, were too pricy for the working classes and the lower bourgeoisie. (Of course, they could always go to coffeehouses or club together, as Altick notes–hence periodical culture as a form of social network.) On the other hand, on Sundays, the only day when you would really have time to read if you were working class, you could choose from a huge range of penny weeklies exempt from the stamp duty (and the penny dreadfuls), including the respectable Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal and the Penny Magazine to the more questionable London Journal. (Also, obviously there were exceptions, but from what I gather, “journals” tended to be weekly publications, magazines monthlies.) Monthly publications like Blackwood’s, at a few shillings, were also out of reach, until the advent of “shilling monthlies” like Thackeray’s Cornhill. Quarterly reviews were highbrow. The Edinburgh was 6 shillings, 72 times as expensive as a penny weekly. What we get here is an interesting constellation of social class and temporal experience. Adjuncts and other instructors know what it’s like to live from paycheck to paycheck–and the extreme consequences a missed payment can cause, which CUNY does as a yearly ritual–the kind of world where one’s wages (as for domestic servants) were received quarterly seems quite different.
The “Why Teach Lit” panel at MLA got me thinking about close reading and distant reading, slow reading and fast reading. The stratification of publication frequencies suggests another dimension. If you’re reading something, do you read it at your own pace? is it an experience repeated once a week, once a month, over a quarter, once a year (Xmas annuals were big sellers)? Or, multiple times a day, in a perpetual cycle of blog to blog, to Twitter, to online newspaper?