David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco, and Sara Whiteley. The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives

David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco, and Sara Whiteley. The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge, 2016. ix, 203p. ISBN 9780415729697. US$ 163.00 (hardback). ISBN 9781138086067. US$ 45.95 (paperback).

This book, co-authored by linguistics experts, examines reading group discussion through a series of case studies of English-speaking (mostly British) readers and their conversations about canonical and contemporary literary texts. The main aim of the authors is to combine the concepts and analytical frameworks available within cognitive linguistics – more particularly, stylistics – and sociolinguistics in order to produce an analysis of book group discussion that simultaneously takes account of reader-text interaction, group dynamics, and the identities of readers. Book historians who are unfamiliar with linguistic approaches to book talk should not be put off by this preliminary description, since the authors offer an informed and helpful account of reading studies scholarship by other linguists as part of the volume’s introduction. They are also careful to explain the benefits and limits of diverse methodologies within the field of linguistics as they apply to the study of readers and book discussion. Once oriented in this way, non-linguists can understand why the authors argue for a new type of socio-cognitive framework: doing so enables them to employ tools from conversation analysis and interactional linguistics to examine “the talk itself,” while also integrating “evidence from other sources such as interview data, background knowledge, the text being read by the group and other ancillary texts” (15). In other words, the authors retain a notion of reading as a socially situated practice (a stance that sociocultural linguists, sociologists, and cultural studies scholars of reading will recognise), but they do so using specific analytic techniques that enable a detailed linguistic exploration of interpretative talk co-produced by members of reading groups.

Most of the case studies involve book talk about literary texts, with chapter 2 considering how particular textual features engage readers discussing Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, and a selection of poems by British writer Simon Armitage, for example. In this chapter, the authors also explain the importance of Text World Theory to their integrated methodology. Chapters 3 and 4 help to explicate the distinction that Text World Theory maintains between text- and discourse-worlds by exploring how book group participants read prose fiction mimetically, drawing on their own backgrounds, experiences, and interests in order to make interpretations. How group members afford each other “expert” status on particular topics and how that status shapes shared book talk emerges in a fascinating dissection of a discussion about agricultural history in Jim Crace’s novel Harvest. If mimetic – sometimes referred to in reading studies as “popular” or “personalized” ways of reading – are under the spotlight in these chapters, the institutional characteristics of book group talk such as turn-taking and the use of specialist critical language come under scrutiny in chapter 5. The readers we meet in this chapter alternatively ally themselves with the institutional settings within which they meet (eg. a university medical school, a secondary school), but also distance themselves from them by exploiting the more informal aspects of group formation such as rapport. One of the achievements of chapter 5 is the insights it offers into how “the public performance of reading” (121) operates interactively and co-operatively among group members. Chapter 6 offers a lively series of short analyses of online group reading practices. Microblogging, social networking sites, and genre fiction groups form the subject of this chapter and, while the commentary is somewhat preliminary, the authors do succeed in demonstrating how their combined critical methodology can be effectively applied to both face-to-face and online book talk.

At various points, including during the conclusion, The Discourse of Reading Groups becomes (understandably) engrossed in the specialised vocabulary and debates operating within the various subfields of linguistics. For book historians and scholars of reading not trained in that discipline, some sections of this volume will seem overly technical or abstruse at times. However, the specific examples of book talk that are discussed in the volume do enable the non-specialist to gain an insight into how socio-cognitive methods of analysis can help scholars better understand the complexity of book group discourse as a socially located type of language.

Danielle Fuller
University of Birmingham