Shafquat Towheed and Edmund G. C. King, eds. Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives

Shafquat Towheed and Edmund G. C. King, eds. Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. xi, 266p., ill. ISBN 9781137302700. £55.00 (hardback).

The history of reading in the First World War is an area of particular significance in this commemorative period. It has benefited from a conjunction of archival and digital projects that makes new accounts and resources available to scholars across the world. This collection of essays seeks to showcase these developments, and to highlight transnational and interdisciplinary approaches. Though no single volume can claim to be representative of the many possible modes and contexts of reading, this book offers an excellent range of perspectives, touching on British, French, Belgian, German, Italian, American, and Australian experiences. Essays here reflect an increased interest in the common reader – both editors work on the Reading Experience Database, which captures encounters with print that cross the boundaries of gender, class, age, and ethnicity.

One of the key strengths of this book is the evident care with which it has been conceived and edited. The volume comprises twelve essays; these are arranged in themed pairs, each starting a conversation that explores familiar concerns within book history, while also offering new perspectives on areas such as genre fiction, newspapers, young readers, and private collections. The introduction is especially impressive, not only in synthesizing some of the debates that will be explored later in detail, but in re-evaluating the field itself, and delineating the resources now available for scholars of the history of reading in this period. The role of letters and diaries in describing acts of reading is well known but, explored in tandem with the records of publishers, booksellers, and libraries, these personal documents permit a new picture of the distribution and consumption of print to emerge. The war as an occasion for print is also explored. As the introduction notes, a ban on journalists visiting the front in France led to a higher involvement of soldiers in producing journals and newspapers there.

The distinction between the reading experiences of combatants and those of non-combatants is one that might have received greater emphasis, given the dialogic form of the collection. Women’s reading is comparatively under-represented, which may reflect a disparity in the available resources. Sara Mori notes that some Florentine intellectuals saw the increased presence of women in their library as evidence of cultural decline. Gender norms are challenged in unexpected ways, though, most memorably in Jane Potter’s intriguing account of the popularity of romance novels among soldiers. The locus of reading is often important: Edmund G. C. King and Catherine Feely offer two distinct forms of contained reading experience – those of Australian prisoners of war and British conscientious objectors. In some instances, cultural variants may be traced in the study of a single figure. Shafquat Towheed’s deft examination of Edith Wharton’s wartime reading dwells on her transnationalism and her deep love of German literature. Wharton’s judgments on both literary and political writings may in turn be juxtaposed to the retrospective dimension of Ford Maddox Ford’s engagement with books. In a particularly suggestive piece of analysis, Max Saunders describes how Ford’s accounts of his own war experiences are displaced onto memories of reading. This complex intermingling of experience and imagination animates the collection as a whole, making this not just a gathering of scholarly perspectives, but a testament to the interdependence of all acts of wartime reading, politically and culturally.

Lucy Collins
University College Dublin