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Sean Silver and Sarah Van Cleve review Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century

Christina Lupton​. Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 216 pp. 

Review by Sean Silver and Sarah Van Cleve

6 May 2019

If you’re reading this review of Reading and the Making of Time (2018), especially if you’re reading it online, it’s likely that the book’s opening vignette will be familiar to you. The author begins with a depiction of twenty-first-century readers beset by text-based tasks, even while lamenting the loss of sustained time for reading. We have time for emails, news, social media, and reviews, but we never seem to get around to books. The sense of being underwater, of being flooded with distractions, marks the modern, digital moment. But this sensation is not new––it dates to the time when books first became inexpensive. Since then, time has been understood as “fragile, hard to come by, and good to hope for” (p. 2).  Reading, Christina Lupton argues, helped invent the modern experience of time—the very one that might make reading a thousand-word argument about a book preferable to the book itself.  

But how could we help ourselves? We are the inheritors of a three-fold development, which dates to the eighteenth century. An increase in print-based reading materials, sometimes called the print revolution, was historically coupled with the modernization of clock and calendrical time and the transformation of labor conditions under the regime of capitalist production. The history of book reading belongs in the contact zone of these developments, where the time for reading is hedged in by the pace of commodity capitalism. We read books, Lupton observes, in “the interstices of time” (p. 12), in the gaps which the modern print environment forces us to carve out.

This book does not offer a conventional history of reading. It pioneers a theoretical approach, informed by the systems theories of Niklas Luhmann, Michel Serres, and Bruno Latour. By Luhmann’s account, virtually any sociological institution can be a system: factory production or the calendar, but also law, religion, the self, art, or even love. What is important is that it offer an interpretive simplification, reducing the world to make it psychically manageable. A legal system reduces things to the problem of justice; a religious system to questions of faith. Each system develops a unique, irreducibly incommensurate way of making sense of things. This includes its own sense of time, for the temporalities of justice are not that of religion, and so on.

To Luhmann’s list of systems, Lupton adds reading. As she herself notes, this gesture might at first appear unpromising. Luhmann’s systems, though exhaustive, are also spare. Because we only know how to love by inhabiting the codes and routines appropriate to the love system, it is not people that love; it is love that loves. Just so, Luhmann might say, nobody reads. Only reading reads, though people of course intersect profoundly with the reading system. Books, especially in the codex form, uniquely coordinate and constrain the mixed temporalities of reading agents: modern critics, historical readers, booksellers, activists, and even literary characters. The sensation of temporal dislocation which begins Reading and the Making of Time, the feeling of being beset that crowds an online review, would therefore signal our contact with the logics and temporal arrangements of reading.  

We have said that this book offers a theoretical perspective, but because it forges a theory of time, its mandate is also historical. It traces four modes of reading through a series of historical actors: critics, readers, and translators, but also novels, characters, genres, and even units of reckoning time. These four modes are “the partitioning of time, the returning to a text over a lifetime, the contact with a range of possibilities, and the anticipation of a quieter future” (p. 154). We offer a summary of the first, which must, in the interest of time, stand for the others.

Sundays emerged as an important partitioning mechanism, borrowing from religion a kind of time that accommodates the pace of the written word. Charlotte Talbot, bluestocking intellectual, reader, and belletrist, found herself perpetually busy with visits and letters. Sundays were when she could carve out a few hours for books. The essayist Samuel Johnson, the vicar William Temple, the grocer Thomas Turner, and even Samuel Richardson’s character Sir Charles Grandison found themselves perpetually “short of time” but nevertheless able to dedicate intervals for “reading in bursts of intensity and concentration” (p. 62). Each pioneered reading as a particularly fraught partitioning of the day, the week, or the year, systemic habits which we inherit. 

Lupton’s study is rich in encounters with professional and amateur readers, fellow pilgrims in the reading system: a friend’s father in his last days, holed up with a few favorite books; Elizabeth Carter, whose slow, patient translations of Epictetus limn a stoic, noninstrumental relationship to reading; Ross Posnock’s variety of aspirational reading, buying books as promises of a time to read them. Whereas fast-flowing media become obsolete, the stability of books, the deferral of reading them or the promise they hold to rereading, is part of their attraction. They afford ways of “extending time” (p. 126), which was even molded into a utopian program by readers such as Elizabeth Inchbald and William Godwin.  

In concluding, Lupton offers a systemic defense of the humanities. Perhaps the system most closely coupled with books is the university, where reading’s potential for alternate futures is most apparent. The information-distribution model of learning is pervasive in the academy, and perhaps fatally attached to digital media. And while the four practices Lupton identifies might continue in digital texts, she argues nevertheless that the true revolutionary potential of the humanities is in the qualities of time structured by slow media. “It’s a way of being in time,” she submits, “rather than investing or spending time that humanities education holds out its real promise” (p. 23). The reading system holds the clue to this mode of being, with the slow, sometimes disordered, sometimes repeated, and always separate time that was pioneered by readers of books. 

This is a book, in short, that not only traces the making of time in the reading system but also models the quality of time that reading best affords. Make time to read it.