What are the sources of the commonly held presumption that reading literature should make people more just, humane, and sophisticated? Rendering literary history responsive to the cultural histories of reading, publishing, and education, The Pleasures of Memory illuminates the ways in which Dickens’s serial fiction shaped not only the popular practice of reading for pleasure and instruction but also the school subject we now know as “English.”
Winter shows how Dickens’s serial fiction instigated specific reading practices by reworking the conventions of religious didactic tracts from which most Victorians learned to read. Incorporating an influential associationist psychology of learning founded on the cumulative functioning of memory, Dickens’s serial novels consistently led readers to reflect on their reading as a form of shared experience.
Dickens’s celebrity authorship, Winter argues, represented both a successful marketing program for popular fiction and a cultural politics addressed to a politically unaffiliated, social-activist Victorian readership. As late-nineteenth century educational reforms consolidated British and American readers into “mass” populations served by state school systems, Dickens’s beloved novels came to embody the socially inclusive and humanizing goals of democratic education.