Andrew T. Kamei-Dyche
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Reading in Japan has a rich history replete with transformative moments. The arrival of Chinese logographs by the 5th century necessitated the development of reading mechanisms adapting the characters to the Japanese language, which had previously lacked writing. In the Heian court (794–1185), reading was often a social activity, incorporating performance. Small reading communities read romances aloud to one another, while poetry competitions involved intense bouts of composition and reading. During the medieval era (1185–1600), literature spread through the recitation of epic tales with musical accompaniment, while in early modern times (1600–1867), the gradual expansion of literacy combined with a print revolution fueled the emergence of socially and geographically diverse communities of readers. Alongside studies of medicine and Neo-Confucian thought, there existed a flourishing market in popular fiction. The arrival of modern printing technology at the end of the 19th century ushered in mass-market readership. Cheap printings of classic texts competed with popular serial fiction, both of which were encouraged by newspapers. During the early 20th century, reading came to be seen as an act of self-cultivation, but retained a social element, as students and educated urbanites read together and discussed literature. Contemporary Japanese society retains a strong emphasis on the social values of reading, understanding reading not primarily as an individual engagement with one’s interests, but rather as a means to acquire a consciousness of one’s group and nation. Newspaper readership continues to be enormous, and the influence exercised by newspaper corporations and prominent publishers in Japanese society is significant, shaping not only what is read but how. Japanese manga, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a diffuse range of reading communities that represent considerable wealth and influence. Such communities vary by gender, age, and political leanings, and demand media suited to their own particular reading practices and identities. Technological innovation has also facilitated new reading experiences, such as visual novels, a type of interactive fiction game popular among Japanese gamers. The Internet has given rise to virtual reading cultures, embracing both traditional print readerships and visual novel fandoms, further enhanced by ubiquitous smartphone use among readers of all ages. Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō, is a thriving cultural center, and book fairs and other events are widely celebrated.
DeNel Rehberg Sedo
The digital era offers a plethora of opportunities for readers to exchange opinions, share reading recommendations, and form ties with other readers. This communication often takes place in online environments, which presents reading researchers with new opportunities and challenges when investigating readers’ reading experiences.
What readers do with what they read is not a new topic of scholarly debate. As early as the 14th century, when scribes questioned how their readers understood their words, readers have been scrutinized. Contemporary reading investigations and theory formation began in earnest in the 1920s with I. A. Richards’s argument that the reader should be considered separate from the text. In the 1930s, Louise Rosenblatt furthered the discipline, using literature as an occasion for collective inquiry into both cultural and individual values and introducing the concerns for the phenomenological experience of reading and its intersubjectivity. While there is no universal theory of how readers read, more recent scholarly discourse illustrates a cluster of related views that see the reader and the text as complementary to one another in a variety of critical contexts.
With the advent of social media and Web 2.0, readers provide researchers with a host of opportunities to not only identify who they are, but to access in profound ways their individual and collective responses to the books they read. Reader responses on the Internet’s early email forums, or the contemporary iterations of browser-hosted groups such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, alongside book talk found on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, present data that can be analyzed through established or newly developed digital methods. Reviews and commentary on these platforms, in addition to the thousands of book blogs, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, and readers’ reviews on bookseller websites illustrate cultural, economic, and social aspects of reading in ways that previously were often elusive to reading researchers.
Contemporary reading scholars bring to the analytical mix perspectives that enrich last century’s theories of unidentified readers. The methods illustrate the fertility available to contemporary investigations of readers and their books. Considered together, they allow scholars to contemplate the complexities of reading in the past, highlight the uniqueness of reading in the present, and provide material to help project into the future.
Abram C. Van Engen
The Salem witch trials have gripped American imaginations ever since they occurred in 1692. At the end of the 17th century, after years of mostly resisting witch hunts and witch trial prosecutions, Puritans in New England suddenly found themselves facing a conspiracy of witches in a war against Satan and his minions. What caused this conflict to erupt? Or rather, what caused Puritans to think of themselves as engaged, at that moment, in such a cosmic battle? These are some of the mysteries that the Salem witch trials have left behind, taken up and explored not just by each new history of the event but also by the literary imaginations of many American writers.
The primary explanations of Salem set the crisis within the context of larger developments in Puritan society. Though such developments could be traced to the beginning of Puritan settlement in New England, most commentators focus on shifts occurring near the end of the century. This was a period of intense economic change, with new markets emerging and new ways of making money. It was also a time when British imperial interests were on the rise, tightening and expanding an empire that had, at times, been somewhat loosely held together. In the midst of those expansions, British colonists and settlers faced numerous wars on their frontiers, especially in northern New England against French Catholics and their Wabanaki allies. Finally, New England underwent, resented, and sometimes resisted intense shifts in government policy as a result of the changing monarchy in London. Under James II, Massachusetts Bay lost its original charter, which had upheld the Puritan way for over fifty years. A new government imposed royal rule and religious tolerance. With the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution, the Massachusetts Bay government carried on with no official charter or authority from 1689 until 1691. When a new charter arrived during the midst of the Salem witch hunt, it did not restore all the privileges, positions, or policies of the original “New England Way,” and many lamented what they had lost. In other words, in 1692, New England faced economic, political, and religious uncertainty while suffering from several devastating battles on its northern frontier. All of these factors have been used to explain Salem.
When Governor William Phips finally halted the trials, nineteen had been executed, five had died in prison, and one man had been pressed to death for refusing to speak. Protests began almost immediately with the first examinations of the accused, and by the time the trials ended, almost all agreed that something had gone terribly wrong. Even so, the population could not necessarily agree on an explanation for what had occurred. Publishing any talk of the trials was prohibited, but that ban was quickly broken. Since 1695, interpretations have rolled from the presses, and American literature—in poems, plays, and novels—has attempted to make its own sense and use of what one scholar calls the mysterious and terrifying “specter of Salem.”