Reading It Wrong is a new history of eighteenth-century English literature that explores what has been everywhere evident but rarely talked about: the misunderstanding, muddle and confusion of readers of the past when they first met the uniquely elusive writings of the period. Abigail Williams uses the marginal marks and jottings of these readers to show that flawed interpretation has its own history—and its own important role to play—in understanding how, why and what we read.
Focussing on the first half of the eighteenth century, the golden age of satire, Reading It Wrong tells how a combination of changing readerships and fantastically tricky literature created the perfect grounds for puzzlement and partial comprehension. Through the lens of a history of imperfect reading, we see that many of the period’s major works—by writers including Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, Mary Wortley Montagu, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift—both generated and depended upon widespread misreading. Being foxed by a satire, coded fiction or allegory was, like Wordle or the cryptic crossword, a form of entertainment, and perhaps a group sport. Rather than worrying that we don’t have all the answers, we should instead recognize the cultural importance of not knowing.
Abigail Williams is professor of eighteenth-century studies at the University of Oxford and Lord White Tutorial Fellow at St Peter’s College, Oxford. She is the author of The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home and Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture. She is also the editor of Jonathan Swift’s Journal to Stella.
“Rarely does one encounter such a brilliant combination of scholarly erudition and incisive literary analysis. Reading It Wrong is a splendid and deeply original book: one of the most important works in eighteenth-century studies for quite some time.”—Joseph Hone, author of The Paper Chase: The Printer, the Spymaster, and the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers
“An exciting, perceptive and original study of a subject at the heart of our understanding of eighteenth-century British literature—how we read it, learn about it and teach it—questions that have never before been this directly, generously and comprehensively considered.”—James Noggle, Wellesley College
“Reading It Wrong is engaging, well-informed and interesting, as I’d expect given Abigail Williams’s position as one of the most knowledgeable literary historians of early eighteenth-century England. The rigor of her scholarly background is present in the considerable skill and light touch she brings to writing about texts both at the center and the margins of canonical literary culture.”—Sophie Gee, Princeton University
“Reading It Wrong is deeply immersed not only in the archives and marginalia of the eighteenth century, but also in the critical trends of our own time. Abigail Williams’s book, assuming I have read it right, takes our own anxieties about stratified readerships, the push-pull of paternalism and elitism and professional squeamishness around ‘relatable’ readings, and finds these all alive and kicking at the dawn of the age of print saturation.”—Dennis Duncan, author of Index, A History of the