4.4.4: 1830 - 1910 - Reading habits / traces of users

Vincent van Gogh was a voracious reader. In his letters he frequently wrote about his reading: what he read, how he read and what books meant to him. Over a period of twenty years he mentioned almost four hundred titles. Although he was continuously looking for new books, he also reread older books. Reading to others also recurs frequently in his letters. Thus he wrote in August 1878 from the parental home in Etten to his brother Theo in Paris: 'In the evening the atmosphere was sociable, while having tea we took turns reading from a book about Paul which is very beautiful. In the evenings we also read occasionally from Silas Marner by Eliot, the history of a weaver'.

Van Gogh is one of the few readers from the nineteenth century about whom we are amply informed, thanks to his letters. About the reading behaviour in the period 1830-1910 we know even less than about the reading public in these years. In the meantime letters (Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) and De Schoolmeester (Gerrit van de Linde)) and diaries (Nicolaas Beets and Jacob David Mees) of several persons from the nineteenth century have been published. Further research into ego-documents from the nineteenth century will reveal many more letters, diaries and autobiographies containing information about reading behaviour. However, all these documents have so far not been examined from the perspective of reading culture and reading behaviour. It is, however, possible, to distinguish some types of reading behaviour in the letters by Van Gogh.

First of all: reading (aloud) in the family. How customary was this reading to other family members about which Van Gogh wrote repeatedly in his day? Was reading from the Bible to family members falling into disuse among Protestants, as the Protestant leaders feared? Or was reading to family members stimulated precisely because of the homeliness ideal in the nineteenth century? There are all sorts of indications that reading to other persons was a wide-spread practice. Reading to others was a popular activity in the public domain as well. The rhetoricians of the nineteenth century organised evenings where work by other authors was read and which attracted many visitors.

Another type of reading behaviour is solitary reading: the individual reading, withdrawing oneself with a book, reading in silence. This form of reading behaviour is more difficult to trace. The banker's son Jacob David Mees often wrote about his reading in his diary which he kept during his student years in Leiden. On 30 April 1872, for example, he entered: 'Played billiards in the evening, worked and then read Miserables until 2 o'clock, half of part two and all of the third part'. According to his diary, he had started reading Les miserables by Victor Hugo two days earlier. During the days to come, at the end of a day of student activities, he would continue to read this bulky novel, often in bed. Solitary reading will have been the rule for many professional readers such as scholars and students.

Yet another form of reading behaviour concerns the voracious reading by the self-taught person: eagerly climbing the mountain of letters by reading books which he got hold of more or less accidentally. This type of reading behaviour was customary in particular among the first generation of socialists in the Netherlands, for example Willem Hubert Vliegen. Vliegen, born in 1862 in the Catholic province of Zuid-Limburg, became an apprentice in a printing office in Gulpen at the age of 11. Thanks to his enormous appetite for reading he became very well-read. For decades he was a leader in the social-democratic party SDAP.

Obviously, more types of reading behaviour can be distinguished, for example that of the collector. Research into various resources - such as paintings, novels, ego-documents, moralistic treatises, reading recommendations - will have to make clear which forms of reading behaviour were the most common in the nineteenth century. It would be wise to also include user traces in the investigation into reading behaviour. Broken spines, thumbed pages and dog-ears are, after all, the best proof that a book has literally been read to pieces. But the dog-ear is also still waiting for a historian.

author: J. Brouwer

Reading habits / traces of users