Marginalia as reading history

Jennifer Howard says H.L. Jackson’s most recent work on marginalia not only “reconstructs the fertile reading environment of the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” but also “traces broader patterns of how readers interact with texts, down to the present day.”

The four decades that Ms. Jackson studies in her new book represent a high-water mark in the history of reading, hence of marginalia, she says. Perpetual copyright was abolished in England in 1774, opening the way for more publishers and printed matter. At the same time, the Sunday-school movement, which taught many poor and working-class children to read, was increasing overall literacy.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about it as a period of change for readership,” says Ms. Jackson, “in which the number of people who were reading greatly expanded, the classes who were reading greatly expanded, the number of publications greatly expanded, and the kinds of publications changed, from high-level, highbrow essays and histories and fiction and so on to magazines and periodicals and journals, much lighter fare.”

In the Romantic era, then, more people had access to more things to read. What has not been closely studied, until now, is how those readers engaged with that material.

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