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6ABLCF02 From Author to Audience: The Life Cycle of the Eighteenth-Century Book



Module convenor: Dr Angel-Luke O'Donnell
Credits: 15
Pre-requisites: none
Teaching pattern: Ten two-hour weekly workshops.

Module description:

The eighteenth century saw the publication of some of the most iconic British texts in disciplines throughout the arts and humanities faculty. Novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and 1001 Arabian Nights (c. 1706) have been frequently re-published and adapted for stage and screen over the last two hundred years. The eighteenth century also saw the first publication of foundational works for contemporary political movements. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) set the agenda for feminist thought for over two centuries. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) pushed the American colonists to declare their independence from Britain and create the United States of America. And Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) remains a core text for the study of political economy. This module adopts a book history approach, analysing the production, circulation, and preservation of such books to understand more about the authors, their readers, and why the books are still relevant today.


Over the course of ten workshops, we will examine how authors and printers collaborated in writing texts. We will investigate how readers interpreted eighteenth-century books, exploring ideas such as the implied reader as well as methods for studying actual audiences. Finally, we will look at the criteria scholars have used to select important works, reflecting on decisions surrounding archiving, editing, and academic debate. You will explore these issues in a piece of original research called a ‘book biography’. You will select your own book to analyse either from a list of books or another eighteenth-century book of your own choosing. The book can be a literary, philosophical, religious, political, or intellectual work, any genre that you are interested in, so you can bring your own disciplinary insights into our discussion. Ultimately, your book biographies will provide novel insights into a critical century of Revolution, Enlightenment, and Empire that produced some of the most significant books in the English language.   

Module aims:

In this module, students will:

  • Collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to analyse books
  • Independently research and write a book 'biography' to understand the significance of a text within its original eighteenth-century context as well as its contemporary relevance
  • Evaluate the stability of a text by analysing changes in its physical form and intellectual content
  • Critique key academic practices associated with eighteenth-century books, including archiving, editing, and scholarly discussion 

Learning outcomes:

At the end of this module, a successful student will:

  • Reflect on academic practice to assess its value for lifelong learning
  • Design a research project to analyse how ideas are produced, circulated, and consumed in society
  • Critically engage with significant English-language books 

Core reading:

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Hugh Amory and David Hall, eds. A History of the Book in America: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Clarendon Press, 1972).

Donald Francis McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Guglielmo Cavallo, and Roger Chartier, eds. A History of Reading in the West (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

James Raven, Helen Small, and Naomi Tadmor, eds. The Practice and Representation of Reading in England (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton University Press, 1991).

Stuart Hall, ‘Encoding/decoding’, Media and cultural studies: Keyworks (2001), pp. 166-176. 


Assessment pattern: 

  • 3,000 word ‘Book Biography’ in the form of an e-portfolio (100%)

Formative assessment:

  • Bibliographical description of the book
  • Critique of three model book reviews
  • Peer-review of a writing sample 

The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

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