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Helen Chambers. Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks

New Directions in Book History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xiii + 245 p
Nic Panagopoulos
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Helen Chambers. Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks. New Directions in Book History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. xiii + 245 p. ISBN 978-3-319-76486-3

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1By means of extended archival research and the help of the recently-developed open access repository that goes by the name of Reading Experience Database, (UKRED), Helen Chambers has achieved a number of firsts with this book. She is the first to have systematically explored the reading life of Joseph Conrad from his early years in occupied Poland, through his maritime career, to his life as a multicultural writer in South-East England. Given that Chambers is almost as well-travelled a bibliophile as Conrad was, one could say she is ideally suited to offer a comprehensive survey of this cosmopolitan author’s reading. Other scholars have attempted to trace the reading lives of nineteenth-century writers such as Stevenson, Pater, or Wilde, but none have to date applied the innovative discipline of book studies to Conrad. At the same time, so comprehensively researched is Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks (2018)—besides a 13-page index, it contains over 350 works cited entries and 288 endnotes—that it vies with the classic biographies of Baines (1960), Karl (1979), and Meyers (1991), affording almost as detailed a vista of Conrad’s intellectual and social life, albeit over a narrower canvas. With this book, clearly a labour of love, Chambers establishes herself as one of the foremost living experts on the reader but also the man known as Joseph Conrad.

2Conrad’s Reading comes to fill an important gap in the bibliography of this much-studied author which was first noted in the book that offered the previously most extensive overview of this subject, Knowles and Moore’s Oxford Reader’s Companion to Joseph Conrad (2000). This is because Chambers’s is the first study of its kind to attempt an exhaustive mapping of all the extant evidence pertaining to Conrad’s reading—mostly objective but also subjective—and to compare this against the publications available at the particular time and place that Conrad happened to find himself in. It therefore includes a chapter on Conrad’s fictional representations of reading, viewing Marlow not in his usual guise as narrator of stories, but as a reader of books in a way that provides hints about what Conrad and/or his contemporaries liked to read. Thus, besides such evidence of reading as can be gleaned from Conrad’s letters and non-fiction (e.g. Notes on Life and Letters, and Last Essays), Chambers also enlists the fiction to draw up as comprehensive a picture as possible of Conrad’s reading.

3Conrad’s Reading traces not only what books, periodicals, and newspapers Conrad actually read and in which language, but where, when, and how he immersed himself in these material texts as he literally or metaphorically circumnavigated the globe—for, what is reading if not a kind of mental travel and what is writing if not an invitation to do so? As Chambers observes, other critics have sought to explore the effects of Polish, French, or far-Eastern publications on Conrad, but none have done so from an expressly reading-history point of view. We could add that other studies have made extensive use of the Collected Letters to shed light on Conrad’s life and writing, but none have done so in order to reconstruct Conrad’s reading relationships with those people that played an important part in his intellectual life, or with a view to pinpointing shared reading experiences. In keeping with her multidisciplinary approach, Chambers also traces and reconstructs Conrad’s reading of periodicals and illustrated newspapers, and the way he incorporated into his fiction the historical as well as visual details they contained.

4Richard Curle observed that Conrad was one of the most well-read men he had ever met: something that most students of the expatriate Pole have felt in their bones and many have tried to prove by uncovering the reflected or refracted presence of an endless array of prior texts in Conrad’s fiction. The difference between Chambers’s approach and such comparative studies is that the latter do not attempt to corroborate the perceived intertextual elements in Conrad’s writing by reference to actual reading on his part. As Chambers explains, the traditional ‘hermeneutic approach’ to Conrad’s reading sometimes leads critics to ‘teleologically impose a contingent act of reading’ (3) based exclusively or primarily on their interpretation of the fiction. Of course, it is sometimes impossible to state with absolute certainty what Conrad had actually read and where, so, when having to make educated guesses on such questions, Chambers offers alternative possibilities in order to be as objective and reliable as possible. Another important difference between Chambers’s and the comparative studies’ approach is that the latter is text-based, its primary focus being on Conrad the writer rather than Conrad the reader. The new perspective that Chambers brings to the field resides in her crucial question: ‘what sort of reader was Conrad?’ In answering it, Chambers adopts what she calls ‘intersecting methodologies’ (7), combining a reader-centred and a text-centred approach that helps her follow ‘the changing temporal and spatial patterns of Conrad’s reading over his several lives’ (8).

5Of course, Conrad’s Reading would be remiss if it did not contextualize its subject within late-Victorian and Edwardian culture, so Chambers brings into the discussion the wider ‘backdrop of higher literacy rates, mass print communication, improved transport and postal service across Europe, the surge in colonial book trade, and the empowerment of women’ (6)—cultural factors which she points out are themselves interconnected. If all this were not original enough, Chambers includes a final chapter on Conrad’s little explored intellectual relationships with women, his extensive correspondence and collaboration with literary women, as well as his fictional representations of women readers. This serves to usefully ‘recalibrate the received image of Conrad and women’ (11) in line with the pioneering work of Nadelhaft (1991), Jones (1999), and Schneider (2003).

6As we have said, Chambers usefully differentiates between traditional literary hermeneutics and the kind of evidence-based analysis she performs in Conrad’s Reading. However, looked at from a theoretical perspective the two are not so dissimilar as they may appear, if only because every act of reading—even when it self-reflexively focuses on readers or acts of reading, as here—begins as an evaluative process. Thus, not only does book history prioritize bibliographical facts over literary interpretations and readers over writers, but it also privileges some of those bibliographical facts or readers over others. This is not to imply that there is a weakness in the methodology of Chambers’s book; it is merely to point out that all disciplines base their practice on certain a-priori judgements shared by their practitioners which cannot be questioned without demolishing the discipline. This is as true of the ‘objective’ sciences as of the ‘subjective’ humanities. As Jim exclaims when examined by the Court of Inquiry, ‘Facts, they wanted facts . . . as if facts could explain anything’. Of course, Jim’s exasperation with his prosecutors’ line of questioning is suspect, but it nevertheless raises the question of the relationship between facts and evaluative judgements: just as the latter cannot do without the former, the former cannot do away with the latter. Facts cannot explain everything, but they can help to explain some things when used correctly in support of sound arguments.

7Similarly, although Chambers’s book is designed to appeal to both Conrad scholars and historians of reading, it is important to distinguish these two types of reader, for literary studies is not book studies and Conrad’s Reading aligns itself with the latter category. Nevertheless, in attempting to ‘demonstrate the relevance of book history to other academic fields’ Palgrave’s New Directions in Book History—of which the present volume will doubtlessly form a compelling addition—develops the essentially quantitative methodology of the natural or social sciences in a way that may assist and complement, among other things, the qualitative approach predominant in the humanities. Thus, for a Conrad scholar, Chambers’s book is a useful tool for pinpointing more precisely what and when Conrad read with a view to accurately plotting literary influence, indebtedness, or inspiration. A book historian, on the other hand, would be more interested in how and where Conrad read in order to gauge his contemporaries’ reading habits and how these may have impacted on turn-of-the century culture as a whole. As Katie Halsey puts it in her seminal essay, ‘Reading the Evidence of Reading’ (2008), ‘the history of reading is not only the history of books but also the history of the relationship of books to the social world’ (qtd. in Chambers 7). Besides offering a picture of a Conrad that we have had only brief glimpses of before, the underlying value of Conrad’s Reading is to draw attention to such issues and to demonstrate the way that all the disciplines that Chambers’s book draws upon—book-history, biography, literary studies—can be combined in order to shed maximum light on the cultural phenomenon known as Joseph Conrad.

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Baynes, Jocelyn. Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1960.

Halsey, Katie. ‘Reading the Evidence of Reading’. Language and Literature: International Journal of Stylistics, Volume 18, issue 3 (2008): 231–246.

Jones, Susan. Conrad and Women. Oxford: OUP, 1999.

Karl, Frederick. Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, A Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1979.

Knowles, Owen, and Gene M. Moore. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad. Oxford: OUP, 2000.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Joseph Conrad: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

Nadelhaft, Ruth L. Joseph Conrad. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1991.

Schneider, Lissa. Conrad’s Narratives of Difference: Not Exactly Tales for Boys. New York & London: Routledge, 2003.

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Nic Panagopoulos, « Helen Chambers. Conrad’s Reading: Space, Time, Networks »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 17 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nic Panagopoulos

National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

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