Shelf Life: Sunday, July 24 — ‘What has become of the Gentle Reader?’


Join us this Sunday for the first meeting of the Gentle Reader, a group that will convene monthly during the course of Shelf Life to discuss selections from books about readers, reading, book design, and publishing. We’ll be sitting inside the Shelf Life space in the Henry lobby starting at 2 pm. (Tip: If you arrive early stop by Molly’s Cafe for a drink. Liquid containers with lids are okay in the Shelf Life space — but not in any other gallery at the Henry.)

The starting point of this first meeting is the preface and chapter one of Samuel McChord Crothers’ ‘The Gentle Reader’. (Funnily enough, we  named the discussion group first and THEN discovered the book.) Published in 1903, the book laments the disintegration of the (now old-fashioned) literary trope where the author (or narrator) addresses the reader directly by using the salutation, “Gentle Reader”.  To Crothers, the “Gentle Reader” signified a direct and friendly relationship between the author and his reading public. In a way, the ‘Gentle Reader’ was the visible acknowledgement of the accepted role of the reader — like the passive friend on the other end of the phone call, listening invisibly.

A lot has changed in writing and publishing in the 100+ years since Crothers’ book. A lot has changed for readers, too. The sheer amount of reading material has skyrocketed. At the same time bookstores are still closing — and not just independent mom-and-pop shops: earlier this week chain bookstore Borders announced it was finally dissolving and closing its remaining 399 stores. With the physical publication fighting for readers’ attention alongside electronic media plus a shrinking number of places to browse and discover publications, is it time to refocus on readers rather than shoppers, as Matthew Stadler advocated in his talk a few weeks ago? (See the video of this talk, “What Good Are Bookstores?”, on our YouTube channel) Is there a better balance to be achieved, a new economies of scale for publishing, driven by a reading public rather than a sales ledger?

A couple other questions we’re interested in discussing this weekend:

  • When you’re reading (rather than, say, watching a movie, going to a play, or listening to music) what is at stake? Why read at all? What differentiates reading from other forms of receiving narrative?
  • Is it important to create an interaction between the reader and the author? What does it do for you? For the community of readers?

Crothers’ entire book is available online here, but if you’d like just the preface and first chapter, you can download it here. (It’s short!)

How about you? What questions do you have about the role of the reader and the state of reading in 2011?

The Gentle Reader
Sunday, July 24
2-3:30 pm

Shelf Life is the Henry’s summer ode to BOOKS and READING. From July 1 – October 16th, the Henry has invited book lovers from various fields — independent publishers, librarians, poets, writers, designers, and, most importantly, readers — to share with us what they do and why they love to do it. For a complete list of Shelf Life related programming, please visit this page.

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