Study Guide

Hans Robert Jauss Files

Several thousand extra copies of Jauss's little known "Manifesto on the Extraordinary Importance and Unrecognized Superiority of the Reader" were recently unearthed in the Jauss Archives. Scholars believe that copies were posted all around the University of Constance in the 1950s. The extent to which the ideas expressed in the posters fostered the hoped-for revolution remains unknown. Based on letters and journal entries, scholars conclude that, for his part, Jauss had great expectations for the manifesto, hoping—indeed, believing—that it would change the way people felt about, looked at, and read books. We include an excerpt here.

All hail the mighty reader! We are the unappreciated, the ignored, the overlooked readers. Authors have been celebrated in interviews; they've been featured on the backs of books; they've been credited for creating elaborate fictional worlds and commenting on the profundity of the human condition on Oprah. We the readers have humbly consumed their words, toiling in anonymity as the real and true makers of meaning. We do not ask for much.

We modestly request recognition for the role we play every single day in forming the criteria upon which books should be judged. Our acts of reading, so dismissed by Marxists and Formalists and other villains of theory, are what make a book famous in the first place. Damn it, if it weren't for us self-effacing readers, there wouldn't be a New York Times Best Seller List. Books don't read themselves!

We, the underwriters of this manifesto, will admit that those kooky Marxists were on to something when they talked about the importance of art in history, and they were on to something when they said that reading can set people on the path to freedom.

But when an author whips out a work of literature, he or she assumes it ends there. We proclaim that it does not! We readers are not passive receptacles of literature. We are co-creators! We do half the work, and we demand half the credit!

We thus proclaim the following inherent truths:

Readers change; therefore, books change. Uncle Tom's Cabin is not the same for readers today as it was for readers when it came out 150 years ago. Do what you need to accept this idea.

Books are not monuments, though some people act like they are. You, dear readers, are obligated to compare all books to all other books. Each book is part of this great wide world of bookness. Your interpretation of a book is not random. Recognize that you are informed and knowledgeable—a being who can look at books and do things like compare and assess and identify allusions. Power to the reader!