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Culture and Education

To Explore the History of Reading Books

Atsuhiko Wada
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Many people may be surprised to hear that the history of reading books has not been studied thoroughly. What discipline would study it? Pedagogy? Sociology? Literature? History?

As a matter of fact, each of those disciplines has studied the history of reading books independently. However, a field of study that connects those studies with each other to explore the history of reading books has not yet been established. Nevertheless, the study of book reading and its history is full of the potential that all of those studies connected with each other would produce interesting results.

You may consider that reading books is such a common and ordinary thing for us that we do not have to think about it seriously, especially because we can apparently buy and read books easily in this modern society. In the not-too-distant past, however, the activity of reading books was neither common nor available to everyone. Various controls or restrictions have also been imposed on how and where to read books, as well as how to publish and sell books. Some of them took explicit institutional forms such as censorship, while others took soft forms such as stating or recommending what books to read.

However, it is not only in the past that reading books has been regulated. Reading has never been free or unrestricted in any age, including today. Ultimately, the situation may depend on how well we can now recognize the fact that we do not have the freedom to read, or, on the contrary, how much we are unaware and take it for granted. If so, how can we be aware of the extent to which the activity of acquiring or reading books is restricted?

We need first to break down reading and readers into smaller categories. Various readers have been generated and reading books has been conducted in various ways according to region, place, generation, time, education people receive, and experience people have. In fact, reading books is not a simple process, but rather it comprises many processes and elements. Reading could not happen if books were not generated, transported, and delivered to readers. Reading would be impossible if the flow were interrupted somewhere in the process of delivering books to readers.

Figure 1

So, let us divide reading books broadly into two processes: one where books are created, transported, and delivered to readers; and the other where we read and understand books that were delivered to us. Simply put, reading is divided into the process of books’ reaching readers and the process of readers’ understanding books (Figure 1).

When it comes to reading books, you may tend to regard it only as holding and reading a book, i.e., the process of understanding. Reading is impossible, however, if books do not reach readers, and reading is conditioned and changed significantly by various systems, people, and organizations that provide books to readers.

The exploration of the current situation and history of reading books therefore also requires comprehending this process of reaching and analyzing its transformation in detail. It would be pointless to only roughly understand reading books and blindly trust or advocate the value and necessity of reading, or to criticize or lament people not reading books, without paying attention to this process.

The detailed analysis of these differences and changes in reading also definitely requires a viewpoint toward the past. Both the process of books’ reaching readers and the process of readers’ understanding books have changed considerably and are changing significantly even today. The form of books and the mechanism of their distribution have undergone an unprecedented transformation in the past quarter century, and they are also expected to transform dramatically in the future. Nevertheless, in considering the future of book reading, if we do not understand what book reading has looked like so far, we cannot understand what we lost and what we gained.

A wide variety of questions remain between books and readers. The mechanism or history of selling, lending, delivering books to readers, or depriving readers of books, has certainly not been studied sufficiently. In addition, various disciplines are related to those questions, as noted above. The history of reading books needs to be explored from the holistic point of view that considers questions in those many disciplines by connecting them with each other.

Atsuhiko Wada
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Wada was born in 1965 in Kochi prefecture. He learned Japanese literature at the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University, and studied modern Japanese literature, especially by surveying and analyzing readers and reading books, in the graduate course of the same university. He assumed the position of associate professor, Shinshu University in 1996, and became a visiting scholar, Columbia University in 2005, extending the scope of study to include libraries of Japanese books and the environment of reading books in North America and other countries overseas. Became an associate professor in 2007, and a professor next year, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. The author’s publications include: What is Reading? [Yomu to Iukoto] (Hituji Shobo, October 1997); Readers in the Media [Medeia no Naka no Dokusha] (Hituji Shobo, May 2002); Books across Borders [Ekkyo suru Shomotsu] (Shin’yosha, August 2011); and An Inquiry into the History of Reading: Readers and Print Culture in Modern Japan [Dokusho no Rekishi o Tou: Shomotsu to Dokusha no Kindai] (Kasamashoin, July 2014). Awarded the Japan Society of Library and Information Science award, the Japan Society of Publishing Studies Award, and the Gesner Award for The Japan-U.S. Relationship Viewed from Book Circulation [Shomotsu no Nichibei Kankei] (Shin’yosha, February 2007).