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Fall 2019: One for the Books

This seminar explores not just what people read but how, where, and why they read it. Students will tap the Newberry Library’s original source materials to investigate how, from Gutenberg to digital media, reading has offered a means of defining the self, encountering others, drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, and imagining change.



One For The Books:

The Pleasures & Politics of Reading

“Literacy has often been a weapon in political debates,” Grinnell English Professor Ralph Savarese says. “Take slavery, for example. Frederick Douglass once described the impact of learning to read like this: ‘The silver trumpet of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness.’ He knew what literacy meant and why slaves were forcibly kept from books.”

Frederick Douglass called reading the "silver trumpet of freedom [that] roused my soul to eternal wakefulness"

Newberry Library

Savarese and Grinnell Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Prevost will lead the Fall 2019 Newberry Seminar, “One for the Books: On the Pleasures And Politics Of Reading."

Readings and lectures on the inter-disciplinary study of reading itself will serve as a launch pad for participants to complete their own independent study using the Newberry’s research materials relating to the civilizations of Europe and the Americas.

Letters, archival materials and other items make up the Newberry’s core collections in the areas of Chicago Studies, the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, Center for Renaissance Studies, Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography and more.

From the history of the ABCs to mass media to the inner life of book readers through history, reading itself has come to be seen as worthy of study in itself.  Prevost and Savarese will focus on readers on the margins of society.

Students work with archival items as part of the Newberry program

Prevost has researched Agatha Christie, seeking to understand how British-empire readers turned her from a provincial mystery writer into a global celebrity.  Savarese became interested in marginalized readers after completing a book last year about reading literary fiction with autistic people across the spectrum (See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor).

“We’re excited to be looking at very old stuff in the Newberry archives,” Savarese says. “This course is about rescuing those items and their significance from the abstractions of history and thinking deeply about what reading has done for – and to – homo sapiens.”Students in the class will also connect to readers and reading through field trips, such as visiting the Jane Addams' Hull House Museum to get insight into how immigrants managed the pressure to assimilate.  Guest speakers from area universities will bring expertise on the history and neurology of reading, offering new approaches to the social and physical worlds that readers inhabit.




Ralph Savarese

Faculty Co-Director 2019
Grinnell College



Elizabeth Prevost
Faculty Co-Director 2019
Grinnell College