Definitions of the Common Reader

Some scattered thoughts on the notion of the common reader. We can approach the definition of “the reader” — common or otherwise — from various angles, basing it upon, for example, what kind of person the reader is, or what his or her reading are, or what he or she reads. Richard Altick (see previous post) employs the first approach. He explains his use of the term as follows:

The reading public studied in this book is the one composed of what the Victorians were fond of calling “the million.” It is not the relatively small, intellectually and socially superior audience for which most of the great nineteenth-century authors–the readers of the quarterly reviews, the people whom writers like Macaulay, the Brontës, Meredith, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill had in mind. Here we are concerned primarily with the experience of that overwhelmingly more numerous portion of the English people who became day-by-day readers for the first time in this period, as literacy spread and printed matter became cheaper. The “common reader” studied in these pages may be a member of the working class, or he may belong to the ever expanding bourgeoisie. In preceding centuries […] some hand-workers and some members of the lower-middle class had been readers; but not until the nineteenth century did the appetite for print permeate both classes to the extent that it became a major social phenomenon. (Altick, 6-7)

Altick defines the common reader quantitatively (common=numerous) and qualitatively (common=lower class). The common reader is therefore defined by his or her social stratum. Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader” takes the second route. She defines the common reader with regards to his or her reading habits:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of a whole […] He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out […] (Woolf, 2-3)

Woolf’s definition says little about the social status of the reader or his character, but it tells us quite a bit about the way he reads. I am not sure what to make of the “instinct to create for himself …” passage, although I believe what Woolf is getting as is the seeming lack of purpose or direction in the reading of the common reader, as contrasted by the critic, who reads for evaluation and edification, and the scholar, who reads for knowledge.

We could also tackle the definition of the “common reader” based on features of the text that’s being read. The search for a definition and elucidation of the reader based on texts are perhaps the most complex but also, at least from the point of view of literary criticism and theory, the most rewarding of the three approaches, and I shall devote a separate post to that at some stage.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Common Reader”. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953.


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