Studying the History of Reading Using Google Books (and Other Sources)

To what extent can digital collections such as Google Books help to reconstruct us to the history of readers’ responses to literary works–in my case, readers’ responses to Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), which I’m using as a case study of doing research in the Library of Google?  (For an account of my post-marital fascination with bachelors, see my last post.) Readers’ enthusiasm for this sentimental work stirred up my own interest in it.  At Yale’s Beineke Library, I examined a cache of fan letters in which readers rhapsodized  over the bachelor’s

Patrick Henry's annotations to Reveries

Patrick Henry's annotations to Reveries

reveries and connected them to their own experiences.  As one correspondent, a doctor, wrote,  “I have found it really a book of the heart—of my heart—an echo of my own reveries.”  At Yale I also examined Emily Dickinson’s copy of Reveries, where she (or perhaps someone to whom she loaned the volume) made marks next to significant passages. At the University of Virginia Library, I stumbled across an 1886 edition of Reveries heavily annotated by a young man named Patrick Henry.  In a passage where Mitchell described “a Bachelor of seven and twenty,” Patrick crossed out the seven and wrote in “four,” signaling his own intense identification with the bachelor narrator.  Drawing on these and other examples, I wrote a dissertation chapter on readers’ responses to Reveries (later to morph into a 2003 article in Book History) that challenged the notion that sentimental readers were passive.  But I was examining a fairly limited set of reader responses–about 25 letters from the 1850s to the late 19th century, plus a couple of annotated copies of Reveries.  I could offer an even richer analysis of readers’ reactions to Reveries by examining journal entries, memoirs, and letters, as well as even more annotated copies.  I’m especially interested in whether readers’ views of the book changed over time, given that the book was popular from 1850 into the twentieth century. Could I find such evidence in Google Books?

What I Found

Here’s what I found doing a keyword search in Google Books “Reveries of a Bachelor”; I still need to process the hundreds of results I got searching for “Ik Marvel” and “Ike Marvel” (the pen name of the author of Reveries), as well as searching for those terms in the Open Content Alliance.

  • Recent secondary sources on reading that include short passages on Reveries:
    • Ronald and Mary Saracino Zboray’s 2006 account of a would-be suitor attempting to woo an already-engaged woman by giving her a copy of Reveries; she noted in her diary that she would prefer to read the book than spend time with him
    • Claire White Putala’s Reading and Writing Ourselves Into Being, which discusses how Joe Lord recommended Reveries to Eliza Wright Osborne immediately before she married another man
    • Alan Boye’s account in Tales from the Journey of the Dead of a soldier suffering from a broken heart who read Reveries in a Confederate camp
    • So, hmm, Reveries seems to have been read by heartbroken men, who seemed to use the book to express how they felt to the women they were pursuing.  All three of the above books are based on archival research, which leads me to suspect that I would find a number of references to Reveries in archival collections (if I had the time and money to visit them).
  • Memoirs that include brief mentions of Reveries:
    • Mountaineer Belmore Browne’s association of Reveries with melancholia in The Conquest of Mt. McKinley (first published 1913): “I know of nothing in this world that will produce a stronger attack of melancholia than reading The Reveries of a Bachelor on a fog-draped glacier!”
    • Philosopher Morris R. Cohen’s sense that Reveries stimulated feeling and brought relief: “Today I felt very relieved by reading Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor. It aroused new strains of feeling I don’t know whether I should be ashamed of wishing…”  [snippet view]
    • Richard St. Clair Steel’s description of the beauty of Reveries
    • My questions: Did women memoirists likewise praise Reveries? Why did the book have such emotional resonance?
  • Evidence that Reveries was embraced by educational, religious, and cultural authorities
    • the University of the State of New York Regents High School Exam, American Literature section included questions about Reveries in 1906, 1894, 1908, 1899, 1903, and 1897 (for whatever reason, I discovered this information not in my original search for “Reveries of a Bachelor,” but in a later search  for “”Reveries of a Bachelor” enrica”, Enrica being the name of one of the women for whom the bachelor longs)
    • Reveries was excerpted in several literary anthologies, including Harper’s First [ -sixth] Reader (1889),  The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature (1898), and American Literature Through Illustrative Readings (1915)
    • Reveries was recommended  for the high school reading list (essays) by the National Council of Teachers of English (1913).  It also appeared in quotation books.
    • The author of the satiric “Reflections of a War Camp Librarian” (1918) notes that American citizens sent Reveries and other gift books to soldiers on the battlefield in WWI, not exactly the kind of reading material soldiers craved
    • A “Country Parson” noted in 1862 how Reveries brought about “revelations of personal feeling” among the unmarried
  • Reveries appeared in many printed library catalogs from the 1850s to the 1920s, including catalogs for the Boston Public, Detroit Public, New Zealand Parliament Library, Princeton University, Library company of Philadelphia, and the British Museum Dept. of Printed Books
  • Reveries was not only read in private, but re-imagined as tableaux and read aloud at home and in public
  • Reviews of Reveries

Google Books as a Research Source

  • Except for the reviews (many of which I had already consulted) and the secondary sources on reading (which I probably would have consulted), searching Google Books enabled me to find many resources that I probably never would have discovered, including memoirs, high school curricula, and guides to performing (reciting/acting out) Reveries.  Although these sources (which I haven’t fully analyzed) haven’t radically changed my view of Reveries, they do give me a better sense of the cultural impact that the book had, as well as its personal significance to readers, who read it while climbing mountains, dealing with emotional turmoil, etc.
  • I had hoped to find annotations in scanned versions of Reveries collected in Google Books and Open Content Alliance.  However, in the copies I examined (and I should say that I glanced over them rather than scrutinized every page), I only found minor annotations–people would typically write their names in their books or inscribe a message to the recipient of the gift book, and a few readers made marks next to passages, but I found nothing like Patrick Henry’s ecstatic annotations.
  • For the texts are only available as fragments around a search term, Google Books functions as a ramped-up research index, pointing me to materials that I often need to consult in the print to put the search results in context, at least until Google Book Search settlement goes through and the out-of-print materials are also available as full text.  (For some of the limited preview books, such as reference books, however, I’m able to pull out enough information from the pages that are available without having to see the whole book.)

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