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This article is taken from PN Review 61, Volume 14 Number 5, May - June 1988.

Reading Ruskin and Ruskin Readers Brian Maidment

Reading books about Ruskin always makes me wonder if anyone ever reads, or ever read, Ruskin's own books. His cultural presence has always been something more than that of a producer of texts. Beyond being an author he has always been a rallying place for a whole variety of heterodox social views, many of them unsanctioned by any conceivable reading of his works, and the owner of a proud and sad biography which is only just becoming available for a relatively fair interpretation. So Ruskin the cultural icon constantly obtrudes on Ruskin the writer and Ruskin the man.

Even the evidence of precisely how and where Ruskin has been read provides contradictions. On the one hand there is a long history of fervent attention to his texts, underscored by a series of claims for Ruskin's work as life-changing, and revelatory, an author whose words continually spill over into people's lives. Even consideration of Ruskin's most ambitious readers offers a curious exercise in social history. That staggering memorial to Victorian deification (and reification) of the book as presence, the thirty-nine volumes of the Cook and Wedderburn edition of Ruskin, contains a wealth of stories of men and women like a Glasgow shipyard worker copying out Unto This Last by hand, or writing to Ruskin to complain about the way in which reading his works represented a new version of the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. To the constant question that Ruskin could not have intended his works to ...


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