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date: 27 April 2017

Reading Reception in the Digital Era

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 a digital era offers a plethora of opportunities for readers to exchange opinions, share reading recommendations, and form ties with other readers. This communication usually takes place in online environments, which presents reading researchers with new opportunities and challenges to investigate 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’ argument that the reader should be considered separate from the text, and furthered in the 1930s by Louise Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt used literature as an occasion for collective inquiry into cultural and individual values, 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, not only to identify readers, but also 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 iteration 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 traditional 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 heretofore were often elusive to reading researchers.

Contemporary reading scholars bring to the analytical mix perspectives that enrich last century’s theories of unidentified readers. For example, a sociology of literature that considers the connection of readers to one another is an investigative measure that can help us better understand the role of reading in community formation. Collaborative digital projects that emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the relationship readers have with the books they read, such as interviews with readers found online on Reading Sheffield, illustrate and make available the fruitfulness of oral history; for example, the crowd sourced, or citizen/scholar-sourced, accounts of reading responses, through the online Reading Experience Database, make accessible nearly five hundred years of readers’ experiences. An analysis of the tweets made by literary festival goers highlights the unique relationship between readers and authors enabled by contemporary digital communication tools. These methods, and others, 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 us with material to help us project into the future.