Review of SHARP 2010

by Nick

Some words that came up a lot at this year’s Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) conference in Helsinki:

  • Marginal
  • Liminal
  • Subaltern
  • Literacy
  • Orality
  • Authority
  • Agency

The theme of this year’s conference was “book history from below”, and while this left plenty of room for interpretation, it is perhaps not surprising that the theme which unites every word above is power. In particular, the uneven distribution of power in its various forms was a theme which, in various ways, knitted together the whole conference.

Class was one concern many papers centred on, pauthors who transcended their own social stratum only to end up “neither one thing nor the other”. Archie Dick’s reading of the notebook of Johannes Smiesing, for example, reconstructed the experience of a slave who taught reading and writing to other slaves, and who was able to become a “master” but only, perhaps, at the expense of reinforcing the subordinate status of his compatriots through appopriate choice of submissive scriptural texts. Similarly, Gillian Thomas’s paper on John Harris, the Cornish miner and Methodist turned poet, chronicled Harris’s rise to literary fame while simultaneously tracking his descent into cliche as he sought to produce what his patrons wanted rather than what he himself felt.

Gender was another contested category which pervaded many papers. Otried Czaika’s research on female readers in early modern Sweden used the genre of printed death sermons for elite women to explore the extent to which women could participate in the interpretation of scripture. Barbara Sicherman set out the achievements of Ida B. Wells, an African-American woman of the late nineteenth century who as a newspaper columnist and pamphleteer was able to fashion herself into the mouthpiece of murdered friends lynched by whites, and attract support not just across the US but also across the Atlantic. Janice Radway’s paper on zines produced by girls as part of the 1990s punk scene tracked how middle-class young women, who in class terms possessed plenty of agency, were able to use the tools of middle-class literacy and education to constitute alternative, imaginary personas different to their biological selves. (It also made me very nostalgic for my teenage years and the pre-internet age when it was possible to feel that membership of an alternative scene was genuinely limited and outside the mainstream . Or maybe that is just the distorting lens of nostalgia…).

Ethnicity formed another lens through which speakers interpreted the theme. One of the standout papers was Kinohi Nishikawa’s cultural history of Iceberg Slim, a black pulp fiction writer of the 1960s. This was a world I was completely unaware of and Nishikawa’s talk left me spellbound as he traced the pattern of black urban unrest during the 1960s and the importance of Slim’s work, for all its dubious moral categories, in giving black youths a framework within which to construct an alternative identity. One of the joys of an interdisciplinary conference is that it forces you to stray outside your period and this was a wonderful example of finding inspiration and common ground in a period very different to that of your own research. Much closer to my own research interests, but just as interesting, was Kathryn Gucer’s paper on the Huguenot community in Interregnum London, and how the French-language newsbooks Les Nouvelles Ordinaires helped the community to define itself as a community of readers.

Material, non-human categories also proved an illumating way of exploring the concept of “from below”. Nicholas Pickwoad’s talk on book bindings, for example, presented an empirically strong case for how bindings – from one perspective simply a container for the text – mediated the early modern reader’s experience of reading, as well as talking through his impressive Ligatus project to give a common methodology for recording details of bindings from one library to another. Stijin van Rossem’s wonderful presentation on the Verdussen printing dynasty of Antwerp used the Pareto 80:20 principle as a way to analyse their account books, a potentially dryasdust source which was actually key to understanding their publishing activity.

To a certain extent, I also experienced the conference “from below”. Since finishing at Birkbeck I’m not affiliated with any academic institution, and besides my meagre qualifications hardly compared with the ranks of assembled PhDs and professors. So I was there, along with a handful of others, as an “independent scholar”. That seems a bit too dignified a label for someone who essentially snatches chances at strange hours of the night to skim through primary sources, but even so it was an interesting perspective from which to experience the conference. The closest comparison I can think of is going to a wedding where you know nobody other than the bride and groom: terrifying at first, but then you realise you have nothing to lose and end up talking to all sort of people and generally having fun.

That was certainly my experience, anyway. It was the first major conference I have ever presented at, and that in itself would have been enough. The fact that it was full of friendly people happy to talk over lunch and coffee made it great. I came away with a load of e-mail addresses for further conversations, together with lots of ideas prompted by those I’d met. So thank you to the SHARP committee and the University of Helsinki for organising and hosting the conference – and for accepting my paper. It was a real privilege to be there.

This was supposed to be more of day-by-day blog of the conference, but the hostel’s wi-fi turned out to be exorbitantly expensive and the pressures of real life have intervened since then. Sorry to anyone expecting more of a liveblogging experience. For anyone wanting a more in-depth insight, try checking out: