Review: Regionalism and the Reading Class

Regionalism and the Reading Class cover I got this book through recent sale held by the University of Chicago Press. While not a work of academic history (my usual term-time fare), I thought it relevant because of my graduate methods course teaching in which I’ve incorporated a history of media segment.

An accomplished interdisciplinary scholar (holding appointments at two universities in sociology, comparative literature, English and human geography), Wendy Griswold takes a synthetic, transnational approach to modern reading cultures. Refreshingly, this isn’t a work solely about the United States, although regionalism and reading cultures in the USA figures into her broader argument linking the local form of a reading class to the sense of regional identity. In Italy, Norway and the United States, Griswold tracks very different experiences of each of these elements: from Italy’s less-robust reading class coexisting with a celebrated and cosmopolitan literary culture to Norway’s effective use of state resources for promoting regional literature nationally to the way in which reader movements across

Griswold employs some fascinating models and arguments. I fell a little bit in love with her term for readers who’ve moved into new regions: cowbirds (due to that species’ ease in taking over the nests of other birds and settling right in). I also appreciated her approach to defining the reading class in which she’s clearly talking about not just literate people but those who both value the practice and dedicate time to it in their busy lives. Griswold challenges the accepted orthodoxy that more time on the internet means less time for reading, drawing on a range of research.

Griswold finishes her chapter on “The Reading Class” with three key points that form her prediction for the future of the reading class. First, that reading enjoys a long-standing prestige in almost every country. Second, that reading is intensely dependent upon social organization beginning with education and culminating in reader-driven interaction (in reading groups, which she studies closely as well as currently popular sites I’d throw into the mix such as Goodreads. Third, and for Griswold, one of the most interesting prospects, is a growing gap she documents between reading for practice and reading “as an esteemed, cultivated, supported practice of an educated elite.” [68]

Here’s where we differ. For this last part, Griswold limits herself dramatically. Those works that she deems particular to the reading practices of the reading class are literature, serious nonfiction, books “of the quality press”. And while those books are certainly important, is this enough to define the reading class? Elsewhere in the book she shows how genre fiction (mysteries, westerns, etc.) also are important works in regional reading classes – evoking a sense of place, community and shared experience that helps to build a strong regional culture. Yet, in this prediction we see those other literary genres excluded and this is a problem. As long as only ‘serious nonfiction, books of the quality press’ are going to define the reading class, much of the experience of devoted and socially-engaged readers will pass by researchers, even those as able as Griswold.
See also this lucid review by Tara Brabazon.

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