Crusoe’s Books, in a post entitled “Performative Reading”, tells us that Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister cunningly uses her reading habit as a bit of sly self-promotion. “Two days after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, delivered the following panegyric: ‘He was a thoughtful man, deeply interesting and fiercely intelligent. He was a serious bookworm – which I am too – so talking about the books that we were reading was often, for me, a highlight of our conversations.’ For many months in the Scottish press, Sturgeon had been characterized as a ‘bookworm’ based on the regularity with which she publicly tweeted about the many books she had read. In her reading endorsements, Sturgeon has always been careful to avoid overly popular titles, her recommendations tending to fall on the worthy side of middlebrow. What Sturgeon has always performed in her declared reading choices, and with impeccable consistency, is a proud Scot, cosmopolitan in outlook, with a healthy regard for social justice.”

We used over here to get periodic reading suggestions from our president, and indeed President Obama is still releasing occasional lists of books to read. In his case we cannot now regard this sort of thing as political self-promotion. Barack Obama isn’t running for any office, and one fears that demonstration your status as a bookworm might actually be a negative at the polls over here! His involvement in books continues: he just gave the closing address at this year’s American Library Association Annual Conference.

So performative reading as Crusoe’s Books writes about it means something more like self-promoting reading rather than reading as a performance. They are contrasting it with anti-social reading, where the book acts as a defensive shield. As everyone knows (wrongly as it turns out) it was Saint Ambrose who “invented” silent reading. No matter when the idea came up, for most or our history reading has of necessity been reading out loud. Reading to yourself requires you to be able to read; something which was less widespread in the past. In last year’s film News of the World Tom Hanks portrays an itinerant news broadcaster, traveling around the “Wild West” reading newspapers to paying crowds. A classic of performance reading is the BBC broadcast “A Book at Bedtime”. Charles Dickens made a bunch of money giving dramatic readings of his works on world tours. A pale reflection of this sort of thing may be seen in today’s “events” held by bookstores in promotion of new books. The established pattern for such events is the author reads a couple of sections from their book, and is then questioned by an interviewer and by the audience. That these events have now evolved into international gatherings by virtue of the necessity of making them virtual during the pandemic, begins to get us back towards a sort of Dickensian reach.