[…] The task of the historian is, then, to reconstruct the variations that differentiate the “readable space” (the texts in their material and discursive forms) and those which govern the circumstances of their “actualization” (the readings seen as concrete practices and interpretive procedures).
[…] Hence the attention placed upon the manner in which (to use the terms of Paul Ricoeur) the encounter between “the world of the text” and “the world of the reader” functions (Time and Narrative, 3:6). To reconstruct in its historical dimensions this process of the “actualization” of texts above all requires us to realize that their meaning depends upon the forms through which they are received and appropriated by their readers (or listeners). Readers, in fact, never confront abstract, idealized texts detached from any materiality. They hold in their hands or perceive objects and forms whose structures and modalities govern their reading or hearing, and consequently the possible comprehension of the text read or heard. In contrast to a purely semantic definition of the text, which characterizes not only structuralist criticism in all its variants but also literary theories concerned with reconstructing the modes of reception of works, it is necessary to maintain that forms produce meaning, and that even a fixed text is invested with new meaning and being (statut) when the physical form through which it is presented for interpretation changes. […]
I would add that “a fixed text is” also “invested with new meaning and being” when its mode of distribution/reception changes. It’s not just the physical form in which the text is manifested, but the way in which that form is transmitted to the reader, both on the local level of their individual experience and also in the culture at large. The physical form and the mode of distribution are intimately connected, and I think it is important to parse out the differences between (and work with the relationships between) the qualities of the immediate form (size, paper, typography, weight, design), the modes of production of that form (Printed or electronic, offset, mimeo, letterpress, photocopy, handwritten? Limited edition or mass produced? Unique?) and the manner in which it is distributed (In print: Through libraries? Sold? Given away? At fairs? At readings? Among immediate friends? In bookstores? Big or small? As a whole or serial? Electronic: an e-reader text, specific to a certain machine, or a raw text file? Sold? Given away? Downloadable or passed on physical media? Floating or tied to a specific website or series of websites? As a whole or serial?)
[…] We must also realize that reading is always a practice embodied in gestures, spaces, and habits. Far from the phenomenology of reading, which erases the concrete modality of the act of reading and characterizes it by its effects, postulated as universals, history of modes of reading must identify the specific dispositions that distinguish communities of readers and traditions of reading. […]People in different cultures, in different communities, at different times, read differently. I think that it is important for makers of books to study these prior/different modes of reading, identify current modes of reading (and the kinds of text that they are attached to), and imagine new ones that could potentially be actualized through the making of books. And this might not have to be just working with the paths and procedures that an individual reader might use. Is it possible to create new social situations of reading? (Example: the different readings that we experience versus reading a book on our own, reading it as part of a book club, or reading it for a class.) How does or can the act of reading affect the being-in-the-world of the reader(s)?
The sections transcribed above are from: Roger Chartier, “Laborers and Voyagers: From the Text to the Reader,” reprinted in The Book History Reader, David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, eds., ( London: Routledge, 2002), 48.