There’s a lovely online exhibition devoted to Honore Daumier’s representations of reading in his work as the kind of grand pere of editorial cartooning. I’m struck by the way in which Daumier represents reading as a
social activity. Of course, there are a number of representations of reading as something that draws people into isolation. As, for instance, this piece on what appears to be man and wife together in a cafe. This seems to fit what I’ve often taken to be the individualistic character of reading in the modern world (and, to be frank, this doesn’t seem all that different from someone sitting at a table texting or reading email while ignoring his wife or girlfriend or friends; reading draws us elsewhere, so all the fretting that goes on about the internet damaging our social relationships may be nothing new)
On the other hand, I’m struck by the number of Daumier pieces that emphasize what I would describe as the sociality of reading, the ways in which reading is an occasion for bringing people together. For instance, this piece with two men reading the paper together:
There are actually more of these kinds of images in the exhibit, suggesting that reading becomes a kind of occasion for sociality rather than isolation. (Of course, it’s France, right? Hard to know if similar images could have played in Peoria). Still, I’m intrigued by the ways in which reading becomes a social event. I’ve suggested in some of my work in progress that book readers in contemporary society represent a kind of social subculture with a variety of signs and forms of cultural currency. Are you reading, what are your reading, with whom are you reading, where are you reading. All these form a system of signification that allows readers to form a kind of social sub-group within and around their taste for books. Far from being individualistic, reading is a cultural practice with its own distinct forms of sociality.