Cultural history is littered with accounts of transformative reading experiences. From Abraham Lincoln's supposed assertion that Uncle Tom's Cabin effectively started the Civil War to the recent bestseller The Book That Changed My Life, claims for reading's power abound. This volume is born out of a desire to understand those claims more fully. To say that reading is transformative, that reading can change the direction of a culture or a life, is to assert that reading has power – but how can we gauge that power, or measure reading's impact? The question is difficult enough to answer for ourselves, about the books we have read most recently, and it becomes thornier still when we ask it about readers in other places and, particularly, in earlier times.
In the relatively new field of book history – ‘book history’ being a commodious phrase that includes work on print culture, media studies, and (as in this case) the history of reading – scholars have most often tried to answer questions about reading's effects by using one of two distinct (and divergent) methodologies. One approach has been chiefly empirical, emphasizing specific historical moments and gathering detailed statistics about such issues as literacy rates and standards, library subscriptions, publication and sales figures, and print runs to answer questions about what was being read and by whom in a particular place and time. The other approach tends towards the theoretical, exploring how meaning is created and conditioned by a theoretical – and often largely ahistorical – ‘reader’. Both methodologies have much to offer. The theoretical approach generates insights into the locus of meaning-making, the nature of textual authority and the intellectual, social and political potentialities of reading, while the empirical approach reconstructs specific scenes of reading with a wealth of details and historically specific data. But as the history of reading gains purchase as an established field of study, new (and newly theorized) methodologies are needed.