Required Reading: The Life of Everyday Texts in the British Empire

How ordinary forms of writing—including manuals, petitions, almanacs, and magazines—shaped the way colonial subjects understood their place in empire


Aug 20, 2024
6.13 x 9.25 in.
28 b/w illus.
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In Required Reading, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay offers a new and provocative history of reading that centers archives of everyday writing from the British empire. Mukhopadhyay rummages in the drawers of bureaucratic offices and the cupboards of publishers in search of how historical readers in colonial South Asia responded to texts ranging from licenses to manuals, how they made sense of them, and what this can tell us about their experiences living in the shadow of a vast imperial power. Taking these engagements seriously, she argues, is the first step to challenging conventional notions of what it means to read.

Mukhopadhyay’s account is populated by a cast of characters that spans the ranks of colonial society, from bored soldiers to frustrated bureaucrats. These readers formed close, even intimate relationships with everyday texts. She presents four case studies: a soldier’s manual, a cache of bureaucratic documents, a collection of astrological almanacs, and a women’s literary magazine. Tracking moments in which readers refused to read, were unable to read, and read in part, she uncovers the dizzying array of material, textual, and aural practices these texts elicited. Even selectively read almanacs and impenetrable account books, she finds, were springboards for personal, world-shaping readerly relationships.

Untethered from the constraints of conventional literacy, Required Reading reimagines how texts work in the world and how we understand the very idea of reading.