3.4.4: 1725 - 1830 - Reading habits/traces of users

What did readers read in their spare time and how did they read, aloud or silently, alone or in company, indoors or outdoors, in the coffee houses or in the open air? Following in the footsteps of contemporaries who appeared to detect a change in reading habits, modern researchers also assume there was a caesura in reading habits in the eighteenth century. Intensive reading - (re)reading a small corpus of mainly edifying texts - was slowly but surely to make way for extensive reading - more, and more varied, reading of especially new works such as periodicals and novels. Particularly the new institutions of literary life, the reading society and the commercial library, were supposed to have been the breeding grounds for the new, extensive reading. After all, in shop libraries one could borrow different books and periodicals every time, at a low price.

Reading habits are difficult to study and sources of information on the subject are scarce. The most detailed information on reading habits is to be found in letters, diaries and autobiographies. On the basis of a number of such recently published ego-documents, we can distinguish between various types of reading habits.

First of all there is reading (aloud) in the family context. We are informed about this in the diary of Otto van Eck. Otto kept a diary, by order of his parents who were representatives of the high society in The Hague, from the age of ten until his death eight years later. The diary was an important part of their enlightened education strategy. Otto was required to read a substantial amount of varied reading matter every day and to write reports of it in his diary. Reading aloud appears to have been much favoured in the Van Eck household.

Edifying literature was read (aloud) and discussed at the breakfast table. Afternoon tea was the time for works on natural history or history, whilst hot chocolate in the evenings was particularly suited to reading out a novel or story.

Opposite reading (aloud) in the family circle, we find solitary reading, the individual retreating with a book. The diary of Utrecht student Alexander van Goltstein, kept between 1801 and 1808, is an example of this type of reading habit. His diary, which developed more and more into a 'journal in time', books and literature are often mentioned. His preferences are not individual, but his reading habits are. He read at home, in his room, and alone. His reading served as self-analysis and self-study. However, there was always the danger of reading many novels, superficially and for entertainment only.

Yet another type of reading habit is that of the self-taught man or the social climber, reading his way upwards. The voluminous autobiography of Willem van den Hull (1778-1854) illustrates this form of reading. Van den Hull came from a lowly background; his father was a gardener. Thanks to financial support by others, he became a teacher and later a boarding school proprietor at a French school. At the age of eighteen, while working as a junior teacher in Groningen, he came across three geography books that opened the way to self-study for him: 'They as it were awoke my spirit from the deep sleep of ignorance, in which I had been until I was eighteen. They aroused my curiosity and thus stimulated in me the spirit of study'.

Concluding, instead of a transition from intensive to extensive reading there was sooner an increase in complexity in reading habits.

author: J. Brouwer

Reading habits/traces of users