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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

72 - Reading


Reading is an activity closely linked with travelling. Surprisingly, the definition of reading is malleable; there are different types of reading, referring to the depth of experience of the text by the reader, but a basic definition is that of the consumption of a text. It is possible to ‘read’ images and events too, but the main focus of reading is textual. Once literacy has been acquired, reading is an activity that is automatic: if you see text before your eyes, you cannot help but consume it. Reading or purchasing reading material while travelling has also been an important leisure and business pastime from the era of the stagecoach through to the present. Literacy is a skill that had religious and political significance in the past. In the Classical and Renaissance eras, few outside the political and religious elites could read. The ability to read was linked with power and rebellion; for example, in the Atlantic World, legislation banned slave-owners from teaching their slaves to read. From the sixteenth century onwards, as printing in the vernacular spread throughout Europe, literacy gradually rose among the middle classes. However, mass literacy was not achieved until the mid-late nineteenth century with universal child education. In 1957, Richard Altick's The English Common Reader placed reading in the context of the coming of the industrial society and the democratization of education (1). He traced the development of a mass reading public as they moved to cities and towns, but also showed how the rhythm of their reading and travelling lives changed, for example, with the coming of shorter working weeks, more leisure time and, later on in the century, better-lit homes. However, the prevalence of reading is not solely determined by literacy. The availability and cost of reading material changed, so that as the production of cheap print expanded, in the form of broadsides, newspapers and later novels and didactic literature, so did the reading opportunities of ordinary people (see class).

Reading books about travel has been a popular pastime since the sixteenth century. Some readers do this for leisure, as ‘armchair travellers’ who vicariously experience the far distant places to which they themselves will never travel (see virtual travel). Others read books about travel to prepare themselves for a journey. This is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.