tl;dr: On “Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century”

By Gill PartingtonFebruary 10, 2019

tl;dr: On “Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century”

Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century by Christina Lupton

A WHILE AGO, I tried using one of those speed-reading apps for the first — and probably last — time. My chosen text was The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’s disconcerting foray into science fiction, in which characters are poisoned by exposure to language. I knew how they felt. On the smartphone screen, word after word flashed up in rapid sequence, forcing me to keep up and pushing the limits of concentration and endurance. Meanwhile, the app counted down the novel’s remaining hours and minutes. Upping the pace made it more grueling, but the payoff was that it would be over quicker. I stuck it out to the bitter end, but I’m not sure I can say I’ve read the book. I barely remember anything about the plot or characters. The big takeaway, apart from a headache, was that reading needs time. Or, more precisely, it has its own particular tempo, out of sync with the ticking seconds of the clock. Its duration is unpredictable, intermittent, elastic. More to the point, we’re seldom conscious of it. When absorbed in reading, time should be the one thing we lose track of.

If reading novels against the clock feels strange, it’s perhaps because — as Christina Lupton puts it in her new book — reading about life isn’t normally in competition with living it. We read in the “interstices of time,” not only around and between other things, but also in time that slips through the gaps. Reading doesn’t quite map onto the everyday. It’s incommensurate but parallel: books unspool their own chronology of plot, intersecting our own lives, but in complicated ways. They fit into our days but they also stretch out alongside, cutting across everyday time, work time, social time, and lifetimes. Lupton’s title — Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century — pulls two ways, therefore. We make time for books, but they in turn make time for us, generating rhythms that punctuate lives. The focus is on the 18th century, weaving together literary, archival, and biographical sources, but, like Lupton herself, this study has a foot in the contemporary, moving back and forth as it traces reading’s role in the shaping of time.

In Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century, we get case studies of diverse 18th-century readers, fictional and real, famous and obscure: among them sometime–prime minister Wyndham Grenville, bookseller James Lackington, the actress Elizabeth Inchbald, and Sidney Bidulph, eponymous heroine of Frances Sheridan’s novel. These are interspersed with snapshots of Lupton’s own reading life — as a teenager, a graduate student, and a time-pressed academic. It’s a scholarly monograph that gently tweaks the form, then, but at base it delivers a cultural history of time, and one which has some familiar outlines.

The idea that a distinctly modern temporality can be traced back to the 18th century is not a new one. Walter Benjamin gives an account of the “homogeneous empty time” of Modernity — the blank timeline of history onto which events are plotted — while E. P. Thompson charts the rise of nascent industrial capitalism’s “work-discipline,” the sequestered hours of economic productivity. Both are in the background of Lupton’s book. So, too, is Benedict Anderson, for whom reading is not only a means of forging an “imagined community” of readers, but also of bringing them into a shared sense of time. Reading the morning newspaper puts people on the same page, synchronizing them in the present moment, as well as in an imagined national space.

Lupton’s argument points in the opposite direction, though, presenting reading not as a mode of discipline and standardization, but just the reverse. Reading can “cut and complicate homogenous empty time,” or resist the inexorable tempo of industrial capitalism. As Schopenhauer complained, you can buy a book but not the time to read it. Of course time is money: just not that kind of time. Reading’s duration isn’t easily co-opted into the time of clocking on and clocking off. And while Anderson’s argument holds for newspapers, Lupton insists that books are a different proposition. The 18th century’s rapidly churning market of periodicals and pamphlets may indeed have been of the moment, in step with the “self-identical time” of the everyday. But the book’s duration and heft — the sheer weight of pages — unmoor it from clock and calendar, and provide a space in which time itself can be reshaped and negotiated. Lupton’s 18th-century readers feel the pressure of time, of course, juggling reading with work and social commitments. Yet their varied and creative reading strategies give them a measure of agency. Or, to put things another way: if time is “an ongoing axis of struggle and possibility,” then the book is the medium in which this struggle takes place.

Studies of 18th-century reading are plentiful but tend to be preoccupied by the novel. It plays a big part here, but the focus is not on genre so much as material form. Lupton looks backward, from a 21st century surrounded by ubiquitous screens and short attention spans, an era of interrupted, accelerated reading and “tl;dr,” to examine the historical specificity and temporality of the bound, printed page. But this is not another warm and fuzzy Gutenberg elegy. Lupton doesn’t trade in nostalgia or indulge in hand-wringing about the demise of the codex book. Firstly, these concerns aren’t new: the 18th century had much the same anxieties about distraction, the same sense that there was just not enough time for good reading. More important: It’s not sentimental attachments or sensual pleasures she’s interested in, but mechanics. Analyzing the book’s specificity doesn’t mean distinguishing it from media devices, but positioning it as one. Lupton surveys it from the cold-eyed, dispassionate gaze of a media theorist. A book is a machine for reading, so how does it function?

The codex book, we’re often told, embodies linearity in its inexorable advance toward the final page. But, while its bound pages might have a fixed order, the book’s material affordances are much more varied and multiple. Its sequence is actually much easier to manipulate than, say, later recorded media like film or cassette tape (who hasn’t skimmed the boring passages, or skipped ahead to the sex scenes or the last page?). Pages allow random access; they can be read quickly or slowly, selectively, or on repeat. Readers in the 18th century took all these liberties and more. Lupton’s study follows, through notebooks, letters, and diaries, their idiosyncratic loops and zigzags. Wyndham Grenville’s reading was governed not by the structure of his books, but by that of his notebook, whose two columns recorded responses to the same passages at intervals of several years. The bluestocking Catherine Talbot enjoyed most the “fifth or sixth” encounter with a text. Reading was seldom finished, it seems. Repeat reading meant that books were a fixed point against which to measure one’s own changing life: how am I different this time around?

These may seem quotidian, practical details, but their implications overturn some powerful theoretical accounts. According to Friedrich Kittler, for instance, writing is a medium that leaves no space for contingency. Whereas film can capture an unscripted, accidental event, the book cannot. Even written journalism, by its very nature, can never actually capture the moment itself in all its immediacy and unpredictability. It always lags behind after the event, giving us time preprocessed in narrative. The reader in turn can only follow along this prescribed path, with its preordered time, the argument runs. This is true enough: we can’t go anywhere the author hasn’t already been. But, as Lupton shows, we are free to cut new routes through the book, as many of these 18th-century readers did. They created their own ongoing, ad hoc plots by taking up the book’s invitation to reorder, and its technical capacity for rearrangement and sampling just as much as […] sequence.”

If contingency is what underlies 18th-century reading practices, it’s also how time itself comes to be structured. According to the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, faith in the guiding hand of fate is superseded, in the modern era, by a belief in contingency. Events may have taken a certain course that is beyond our power to change, but they were not preordained. Things might equally have turned out otherwise. The book embodies this emerging, modern sense of temporal progress: its plot is written and its resolution already awaits in the final pages. And yet, if there were only one possible ending, only one possible plot trajectory, what would be the point of opening a book in the first place? Reading puts contingency into play, encountering forks in the road, fates hanging in the balance. The ending might be unchangeable, but reading is about what-ifs and could-have-beens. Little wonder that, as a theme, contingency runs through the 18th-century novel itself, in plots that continually play off chance against predetermination. Fielding’s Amelia tells us the end at the beginning: the characters are happily married and will remain so. The point is to read how things very nearly turned out. Sheridan’s fictional character Sidney Bidulph sees her own life as a book, writing in her bound journal but reflecting on different routes she might have taken. The “already-thereness” of the book is a condition of the “could-have-been otherness” of the plot, as Lupton puts it.

And books have a relationship with time even when they are on the shelf, ignored or anticipated. Unread, they offer us images of an imagined moment in which there will be more leisure, more peace, more time for reading. They function as “technical emissaries from a time to come,” connecting us to possible, alternative futures. William Godwin, the radical author and political theorist, was also a voracious reader, Lupton shows, and his concept of revolutionary change was keyed into this forward-facing temporality of the codex: it allows us to imagine a time in which things will have changed, because we will have read and have been transformed by reading. The unread book enfolds within it a strange tense — what Lupton calls the “future anterior” — which connects Godwin’s idea of revolution to the “queer futurity” sketched out by José Esteban Muñoz. It’s a utopia perpetually deferred, but which nevertheless holds out the possibility of radical change. Again, the affordances of the codex form pull against its apparent finitude: “[T]he boundness of books has never been just a sign that they are over: it has always also been a sign of that time for reading that is still to come.”

It could well be that this study’s biggest contribution to the history of reading is that it doesn’t really resemble one. Its concepts and infrastructure are provided not by luminaries of the field — Darnton and Chartier — but by theorists of technology, systems, and media: Bruno Latour, Niklas Luhmann, and Friedrich Kittler. It takes the history of reading back to the drawing board, reinventing not only its methods but also more importantly its object. The field’s practitioners, as Lupton points out, often deal with space not time, since their focus is on the physical distribution and circulation of books. Or else, they uncover the traces of reading after the event, in the marginalia and scribbles of readers. Lupton instead tries to catch reading in the act. It’s not “books” or “readers” we should be analyzing but rather how the two interact, as a hybrid form of life in the Latourian sense: a body engaged in turning pages. Literature, too, can be redefined not as a static object but as a particular use of time, if we see it in terms of Luhmann’s systems theory. We read it slowly and attentively because it belongs to the literary system, as opposed to the system of news, washing-machine instructions, or, for that matter, speed-reading apps.

In an era when the overtly theoretical has fallen out of favor, and literary history is in thrall to fetishistic archival minutiae, this is a book that swims against the tide. Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century does theory with a big T. Unapologetically and refreshingly widescreen, it goes after big game, joining the dots between the book, modernity, and time. The common complaint about theory is its clunkiness, and perhaps it risks ironing out some historical kinks here. There might be questions about whether literature constituted a discrete system, especially in the early 18th century. What about the era’s notorious predilection for hybridity, mixtures of the literary and the popular, the fictional and the factual, for instance? Weren’t novels also often faddish and ephemeral, existing in the same sphere as other rapidly circulated scandal sheets, gossip, and news? But Lupton’s approach allows for more nuance, not less. She reads between the lines, and across novels, letters, and memoirs, attuned to the play of grammar and tense, discontinuity and rupture. The autobiography of the book dealer James Lackington, for instance, with its heroic, autodidactic feats of reading, is not taken at face value as evidence but as a trope. It’s overlaid with his later Confessions, detailing the process of finally becoming the reader he’d claimed to be in his youth. The truth of reading’s time is in the gap between this twice-told life.

The big achievement here is to set the book in motion, wrenching it free of its disciplinary moorings and putting it back into the flux and flow of time. Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century is a slim book, but dense, pointing forward itself to future possibilities and new angles on the history of reading. For the record: It took me 10 days to read. A few leisurely evenings, then 20 minutes snatched here and there on trains and in cafes, between emails, the laptop screen glowing in the background.


Gill Partington is the 2018–2019 Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University. She is currently working on a project on the “movable book.” 

LARB Contributor

Gill Partington is the 2018–2019 Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University. She is interested in the weird things people do to books, and vice versa. She has published on artists’ books, contemporary fiction, and books on film, and is now working on deviant reading and the “movable book.”


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!