Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This course is listed in Literature, Comparative Media Studies, and Women's and Gender Studies.

What is the history of popular reading in the Western world? How does widespread access to print relate to distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow culture, between good taste and bad judgment, and between men and women readers? This course will introduce students to the broad history of popular reading and to controversies about taste and gender that have characterized its development. Our grounding in historical material will help make sense of our main focus: recent developments in the theory and practice of reading, including fan-fiction, Oprah's book club, comics, hypertext, mass-market romance fiction, mega-chain bookstores, and reader response theory.


Two oral reports 20%
Formal write-up of one oral report 15%
Participation 25%
Research paper prospectus 5%
Research paper 35%


General Expectations

  • Attendance is mandatory. If you are going to be absent you must alert me in advance. Two absences are allowed. As the third is reached your grade will suffer. Consistent lateness is a form of absence.
  • Plagiarism will be penalized with due severity. Literature's policy states: "students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work." For more, find the style guides at the MIT Online Writing and Communication Center.
  • Never bring food, mobile phones, or laptops to class. I will make an exception for your laptop if its use is class related.


1 Introductions: You, Me, Oprah  
2 Oprah's Book Club I  
3 Oprah's Book Club II  
4 Theories of reading I  
5 Oprah's Book Club III Your reports: Oprah's book club choices
6 Theories of reading II  
7 The sociology and history of reading I  
8 The sociology and history of reading II  
9 The sociology and history of reading III Short paper on Oprah's book club choices due
10 Reading and social identity I  
11 Reading and social identity II  
12 Reading and social identity III Your reports: social identity and your reading behavior
13 Reading as resistance I  
14 Reading as resistance II  
15 Romance readers I  
Out of class: Go visit a comics shop
16 Romance readers II

Your reports: niche romance audiences, and/or your own romance reading

Short paper on reading and social identity due

17 Fandom I  
18 Fandom II  
19 A visit to the Rare Books Department at the Boston Public Library Research prospectus due
20 The bestseller

Your reports: What makes a bestseller?

Short paper on romance readers due

Out of class: Go visit a mega-chain bookstore, and watch You've Got Mail
21 Bookstores, online and off-line  
22 FADS: reading as social engineering  
23 FADS: Harry Potter mania Short paper on bestsellers due
24 Research presentations  
25 Wrapping up Research paper due