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Response to Review of Steam-Powered Knowledge: William Chambers and the Business of Publishing, 1820-1860

It is always a joy to find a reviewer who seems to have truly grasped the several points one was trying to make. Iain Watts has not only done that, but written an elegantly-crafted essay that I will be delighted to use for future promotional purposes. The Coleridge quotation was new to me, and I think I’ll be using that one elsewhere …!

Something I particularly appreciate about this review is its recognition of my contribution to the historiography of technology. Almost all the other reviews of my book so far have placed it within the history of publishing and/or business. Yet, by disciplinary training, I am an historian of science and technology. I’m sure the historians of science are wondering where the history of science is in this book; my answer would be that it’s the technology that’s the real focus here. As Iain Watts points out, the Chambers publishing firm offers me a way to investigate the adoption and on-going use of technologies, which can be shown to be highly contingent and creative. I do hope that others will also appreciate this.

Iain Watts is not the first person (and probably not the last!) to say of my work, ‘But what about the readers?’ I guess, like many of the Victorians, I am guilty of tacitly assuming that it was – naturally – a Good Thing to have more cheap print, and to leave it at that. Of course, I can produce an academic justification, by pleading the enormous difficulty of doing reader response studies, particularly for the sorts of relatively generic, instructive, cheap, mass-produced works that I study. For instance, the Reading Experience Database (1), which has been crowdsourcing historical reading experiences for the last 15years or more, and now has over 30,000 records, offers very little help with the reading experience of the Chambers publications. There are three records for their Journal and none for any of the miscellaneous part-works. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that, as Simon Eliot, founder of RED, has pointed out, it’s generally only atypical reading experiences which are recorded for historians to uncover.(2) Tracing the history of ordinary, typical reading is going to be difficult. I would urge historians of all stripes not to leave it to literary scholars: we need to know about the experiences of reading street signs, religious tracts, cheap science pamphlets and elementary geography textbooks. It will be more challenging than studying famous or sensational works of literature – which is daunting, given the scale of Jim Secord’s study of the readership of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (3) – but that’s what we’ll need to do. Somehow.

That, however, is a different project from the one under review here!

1              <http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/UK/index.php> [accessed 6 June 2013]

2              <http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/redback.htm> [accessed 6 June 2013]

3              James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: the Extraordinary Publication, Reception and Secret Authorship of ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ (Chicago, IL, 2000).