Voices and Books

On 8th February 2022, we discussed Jennifer Richard’s Introduction to Voices and Books in the English Renaissance chosen by Mirjam Haas. Mirjam prepared the following summary and prompts to guide our reading. If you’re short on time, focus on the second section: Voices, Texts, and Books (16-29).

…many books, pamphlets especially, had a life off the page as well as on it, not just in the so-called marketplace of print but also literally in the mouths and ears of readers. The voice animates the words on the page. It brings the flat page to life with thought, wit, and emotion.

Richards, 29

In the introduction to her recent book Voices and Books in the English Renaissance: A New History of Reading (2019), Jennifer Richards is not only thinking about early modern (and modern) reading practices and how they might influence the making as well as the reception of early modern books of all kinds, she also makes a point of thinking about voice as a material and bodily thing that has sensual properties (pitch, volume, etc.) of its own. She considers how these properties can be incorporated into written texts, texts that – in the Renaissance – were generally meant to be read aloud. Reading aloud, then, is also connected to performance – Voices and Books, stage and page.

Different agents (who reads? who listens?) and their ability to control and influence interpretation play an important part here as well – and, I would argue, form a bridge to thinking about performance not only in the Renaissance, but also today: “Voices and Books explores what happens when we bring voice to text, how vocal tone realizes or changes textual meaning, and how literary writers of the past [and present!] tried to represent their own and other’s voices, as well as manage and exploit readers’ voices” (24).

While Richards does not deal with “the pronunciation of sixteenth-century English” (19) nor with “breath” (20), she does “focus on rhetorical delivery and the capacity of the voice to communicate through tone, by which I mean both the prosodic features that convey emotion – pitch, loudness/softness, pace, rhythm – and timbre or ‘the overall sound of the voice’” (20; citing David Crystal). Tone is one of the biggest “problems” she encounters in her work as it isn’t a well-understood or well-researched term.

Three parts and reading shortcuts:

  1. Why We Don’t Listen to Renaissance Books (1-16 – provides an overview of the research history)
  2. Voices, Texts, and Books (16-29)
  3. An Overview of This Book and Its Structure (29-33)

Some questions/discussion ideas:

  • In her review of the literature on Renaissance reading (2ff), Richards shows how modern research “privileged the silent male reader” (3) – even though her research shows that early modern men read aloud as well (7) – and thus discouraged the study of orality, especially that of women reading aloud. She also touches upon the somewhat problematic linear thinking in her review of Ong’s work (Orality to Literacy) – i.e. first there was “unsophisticated” orality, now there’s “sophisticated” (silent) reading. Is this something you encounter in your particular field of research? i.e. that current movements in research, generally held assumptions and prejudice either encourage/enable or discourage/hinder us from exploring sources in a specific way and, perhaps, seeing them (more) “as they are”?
  • Would you agree that “we don’t have tools for [tone’s] analysis” as we don’t learn about this in school/university? As we come from different countries, it might be interesting to discuss differences/exchange our experience. For those with experience performing, is this different for you?
  • Early modern sound is “unrecoverable” (22, 31) – is this an issue you also deal with in your research? How do you meet this challenge?
  • Richards “is proposing that no one should write about literary ‘voice’ without also taking account of its physical qualities” (23). What do you think about this statement? What problems does it bring? What chances does it offer?
  • The problem of “texts” (24) in general – what is a theatre “text”?  

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