15.231 reading in bed

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sat Sep 08 2001 - 02:48:59 EDT

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "15.232 recommended reading (perhaps in bed)"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 231.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: "Koster, Jo" <kosterj@exchange.winthrop.edu> (45)
             Subject: RE: 15.228 reading in bed

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (37)
             Subject: levels of light

             Date: Sat, 08 Sep 2001 07:12:43 +0100
             From: "Koster, Jo" <kosterj@exchange.winthrop.edu>
             Subject: RE: 15.228 reading in bed

    Jim and all:

            I would suspect that reading in bed is a function of safe
    internal lighting: candles and cloth furnishings are, in general, a poor
    mix. In the Middle Ages and early Modern period, the bed was usually an
    enclosed structure with curtains, often in a room where other activities
    were going on; thus the curtains were used to shut out light and sound.
    Not a likely candidate for bedside reading; I can't remember an example
    in either period, nor a MS illustration of a reader in bed. In the 17th
    century, perhaps. But Pepys usually ends his diary entries, including a
    description of his reading, with a phrase like "And so to bed"--this
    again suggesting that reading and bed were not synonymous. There is a
    17th century feature called the closet--a small room with desk, books,
    reading chair--this seems to be where more private reading took place.
    I've been trying to think of period architecture and furnishings, and
    when the bedside commode begins to hold books and papers instead of just
    the 'night furniture'; I think it's late-eighteenth or early 19th
    century. Still, even in Jane Austen's time, people took one single
    candle upstairs to light their way to bed--again not suggesting that the
    lighting was conducive to bedside reading. I think a few clandestine
    letters are read over in bed in Austen--but that's not a book.

            It's been too long since I read Trollope or Dickens or any of
    the Victorian household novelists to remember if bedside reading shows
    up there. The first examples that came to mind when you raised this
    question were Oscar Wilde and Alice James, actually; so somewhere after
    1850? Again, that's where you have gas lighting laid on in middle class
    homes, allowing better illumination, and also when the "canopy style" of
    bed goes out of fashion, and the central ceiling light fixture begins to
    appear in architecture.

            If the Furness Library is still as good as it was when I was at
    Penn (late 70s), somewhere in the art and design collections there you
    might find an answer....


    Jo Koster (formerly Tarvers), Ph.D.
    Department of English
    Winthrop University
    Rock Hill, SC 29733-0001 USA
    phone (803) 323-4557
    fax (803) 323-4837
    e-mail kosterj@winthrop.edu
    on the web http://faculty.winthrop.edu/kosterj
    "I always wanted to be somebody. I guess I should have been more
    specific." --Lily Tomlin


             Date: Sat, 08 Sep 2001 07:29:45 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: levels of light

    I take Jim O'D's point, in the previous dispatch of Humanist, that candles
    and the like did not put out much light -- by our standards, which is to
    say, to our eyes. We are so accustomed to what from an historical
    perspective would be considered quite high (and in some countries
    astoundingly constant) levels of illumination that we find it difficult to
    imagine comfortable reading by candle-light. Is there not evidence
    somewhere that the sensorium has over time adjusted to accommodate what we
    find necessary or desirable to sense?

    So I am thinking that levels of light are not the problem. The canopied bed
    would present a difficulty, though would the drapes necessarily make
    illumination too dangerous or difficult? Under circumstances in which they
    would be drawn to keep in whatever warmth, rather than to provide privacy
    (esp before the invention of corridors to link rooms), they would not
    necessarily have to be drawn immediately, and might not, I am supposing, in
    warmer weather. Then there's the relationship between ability to read,
    social class and sleeping arrangements. To what degree did families sleep
    in the same bed out of necessity? and so on.

    I suppose that the historiographical point here is in puzzling out what the
    world was like without our knowledge of what it was going to be like. I
    keep thinking of how we reach an understanding, even across such a short
    and relatively shallow abysm of time, of artefacts and practices that
    computing has affected. We are, for example, amazed at the number of
    letters various well-known and presumably busy people, like Jung, were
    known to have written each day, so completely have other means of
    communicating affected us. To say nothing of how corrupted out minds have
    become by the thrill of links, to the degree that when we encounter a
    footnote or other reference what we tend to see is proto-hypertext
    struggling to be liberated from its confines in print.

    Is there any reason to think that to any degree we tend to read in bed for
    historically contingent reasons, whatever the changes in convenience and


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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