Historical Immersion and Contemporary Distraction

Many teachers, writers, and readers are concerned about the rise in distracted reading that digital technologies are often assumed to prompt. As we increasingly read on screens, and as students are taught and tested on digital devices, the common experience of distracted reading is calling attention to the nature of attention itself.

In a section of English 101 (Critical Reading and Composition) that met regularly in Rare Books, students approached academic writing by way of this public concern about popular reading habits—the differences between reading in print and reading on screens. Students read short stories in different formats including original editions, twenty-first paperbacks, and online editions. In class, they discussed their experiences reading the same story in more than one format. The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, led students to refine the concepts of “distraction” and “attention” that are frequently invoked in popular discussions of reading online.








If we agree that online texts can encourage inattentive, discontinuous reading experiences, then what kinds of reading experiences might various historical print forms encourage? How might readers react, for example, to short stories published in periodicals, printed in narrow columns between full-page illustrated advertisements? Reading online can, of course, provide encyclopedic contextual information—it can be far easier to look up unfamiliar names and terms online, and some students benefit from using one tab to read a story and a second tab to search for relevant information and definitions. But as other students acknowledge, if a third tab is open to facebook, and possibly another for twitter, then today’s distractions can outweigh the benefits of quick searching capabilities. Students were asked to consider whether the helpful contextual information that reading online can provide might outweigh the loss of immersive, enchanted reading experiences that a printed book can foster.






Early in the semester, students discussed the concept of “enchanted reading,” a response to literature described by Rita Felski in her Uses of Literature. For Felski, enchantment names “a state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter” (54). For other critics, psychologists, and readers, printed books tend to foster enchanted reading experiences while digital editions can instead encourage inattention and distraction.





Distracted reading, though, is not new. Poems have been published with disruptive footnotes and marginal glosses, novels have been published with extensive illustrations. Historical print forms could lead to difficulty in navigating from page to page, problems in maintaining plot continuity, and, in this case, the potential distractions of large illustrations and advertisements printed between the sections of Fitzgerald’s short story. But as twenty-first-century readers turning the pages of an early twentieth-century magazine, students experienced a different kind of distraction, one that they found aids in the comprehension of a historical era and a literary work. This kind of distraction is, many decided, productive. It seems to make historical distance easier to cross. Seeing the hairstyles, fashions, and consumer products so crucial to Fitzgerald’s story helped make sense of his characters’ actions. These distractions were historical rather than contemporary—they depict the unfamiliar world of a hundred years ago rather than returning us to the very familiar world of the present. These distractions also led, for some students, to a different kind of immersive reading experience, a level of engagement that comes much closer to the aesthetic enchantment that had initially seemed to be the polar opposite of distraction. 


Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Jeanne M. Britton
Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
University of South Carolina

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“Piranesi and Romanticism: Architecture and the Literary Imagination.”

The University of South Carolina is one of six institutions worldwide to own a complete twenty-nine volume set of the works of the eighteenth-century architectural illustrator Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). He is known for his meticulous and fanciful engravings of Roman architecture, ancient and modern, as well as his “imaginary prisons.” In his engravings, lush vines hang over classical ruins, eighteenth-century scholars cast light in the shadows of long-hidden family crypts, and faceless prisoners climb endless staircases past skulls and bones. Piranesi’s works reveal significant transitions in archaeology, aesthetics, architecture, engraving, and print, and they inspired many of the great names of nineteenth-century literature. In Spring 2017 I taught an honors college seminar that met in Rare Books and Special Collections called “Piranesi and Romanticism: Architecture and the Literary Imagination.”

Born in Venice, Piranesi made his professional and cultural home in Rome, where his works were sold individually and bound in publications including Antichità romane [Roman Antiquities] (1756), Vedute di Roma [Views of Rome] (1748), and Carceri d’invenzione [Imaginary Prisons] (1750). In this seminar, Piranesi’s visual meditations on the lost glories, shadowy corners, and persistent beauty of ancient Roman architecture served to introduce students to the literary and cultural period of Romanticism. Piranesi’s works straddle the boundary between neoclassicism’s emphasis on order and the classical ideal and Romanticism’s emphasis on the imagination and the individual.  The range of his artistic productions—from objective architectural plans to elaborate architectural fantasies, from urban scenes of eighteenth-century Rome to imaginary scenes of subterranean torture—demonstrate visually many of the thematic tensions that animate literary works of the following decades.

Opere, v. 8, image 70 (“Pianta di ampio magnifico Collegio” [plan of a large and magnificent college])

Opere, v. 2, image 4 (Antichità romane, frontispiece)

Opere, v. 16, image 58 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta della Basilica di S. Paolo” [View of the Basilica of San Paolo])

Opere, v. 8, image 136 (Carceri, plate VII)

Piranesi’s works were frequently acquired and highly prized by wealthy British and Northern European travelers on the “grand tour,” and some writers describe their disappointment at seeing Rome itself after having first seen it through Piranesi’s vision. Students in this course also used Piranesi’s vision as an introduction—to poetry and prose of European Romanticism—and were challenged and encouraged, rather than disappointed, by having seen through Piranesi’s vision. His engravings present not only the literal views of Rome that were the subject of student presentations early in the semester but also more abstract perspectives on historical time, individual creativity, architectural space, and the power of nature that continued to guide our discussions about works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Charles Baudelaire throughout the term.

Opere, v. 16, image 388 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta della fonte e delle Spelonche d’Egeria” [View of the fountain and grotto of Egeria])

Opere, v. 16, image 376 (Vedute di Roma, “Veduta interna dell’antico Tempio di Bacco” [Interior view of the Temple of Bacchus])

Jeanne M. Britton
Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
University of South Carolina

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Highlights from the Ron Rash Archive now on display in the Irvin Department Gallery

The Irvin Department’s current exhibit, “More than a Southern Author: Influences and Impact in the Works of Ron Rash,” explores the newly acquired Ron Rash Archive by highlighting the author’s allusions and references to other literary classics within his works.  Drawing from the Irvin Department’s holdings, this exhibit pairs Rash’s manuscripts with works of other authors, from handwritten manuscript by Pat Conroy to Shakespeare’s 2nd Folio from 1632.

The Ron Rash Archive, the comprehensive collection of award-winning, internationally bestselling contemporary author Ron Rash, has found a home in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Ron Rash, 2016

Rash is a triple threat– writing and publishing poetry, short stories and novels. Rash’s intensely regional works reveal deep universal truths.  Among his numerous awards, three of his novels have been New York Times Best Sellers, he was twice nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2010 and this year Rash was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction.  Rash’s recent popular success comes as no surprise to those familiar with his decades long career. Rash has written seven novels, four poetry compilations and six short story anthologies beginning with The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth in 1994. His most recent work of fiction, The Risen, was published in late 2016. His first published work, a short story titled “Turtle Meat” was published in 1978.

Born in Chester, South Carolina and raised in western North Carolina, Rash’s works are grounded in the American South and are informed by his family’s history and the history of the region. His grandparents moved to Buncombe County, North Carolina to work at Eureka Cotton Mill and his mother and father met while employed at the mill. Rash would title his first book of poetry, Eureka Mill.

 However, Rash is much more than a southern author. Rash admires and is often compared to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor but his works also show his connection to the works of a myriad of authors from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Walt Whitman. Works from all of these authors and others are included in this exhibit, drawing direct parallels between the works and Rash’s personal history and influences using archival material from the Ron Rash Archive.

Ron Rash tours the exhibit at the announcement of the acquisition of his archive by USC with his wife Ann and Irvin Department Archivist Jessica Crouch

The exhibit is on display in the Brittain Gallery and the Irvin Department Gallery in The Hollings Special Collections Library until July 31.  An audio tour is available as a compliment to the exhibit at the Reading Room desk. 

Rash (middle) with Dean of USC Libraries Tom McNally (left) and South Carolina Historian Walter Edgar (right) at the announcement of the acquisition of the Ron Rash Archive, April 27, 2017

Jessica Crouch, Archivist

Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections

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