Hints for Improvement in the Art of Reading ...

London: Printed for the Author, and sold by T. Cadell ... G. Robinson ... and T. Becket ... 1783

8vo., pp. viii, 86, [2], with half-title and a final leaf of advertisements; a very good copy, stitched as issued, uncut, in the original blue-grey wrappers (spine partly defective and a small piece nibbled from the front wrapper).


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First edition. The future lexicographer John Walker (1732-1807) left grammar school and then absconded from an apprenticeship to join a succession of provincial theatre companies. Garrick hired him in 1754 and for the next four years he performed a number of mainly minor parts at Drury Lane. In 1758 Walker and his wife were engaged to join the new Crow Street Theatre in Dublin. After further engagements there and at Covent Garden and Bristol he quit the stage in 1768 and turned to teaching elocution, first at a school in Kensington Gravel Pits (now Notting Hill Gate), then as a tutor and peripatetic lecturer.

By the Art of Reading Walker means reading out loud – important for parliamentary orators, barristers, and clergymen. His ideas of how different contexts affect the ‘pure, distinct, and articulate pronunciation’ of individual words are very prescriptive, and he also deals with rules for pausing, inflexion, and the nature of emphasis. There are examples of how poetical abbreviations (e’er , ne’er, th’) are to be pronounced and ‘when we are to alter’ the normal accent of a word when reading verse, and when not.

Dr Johnson, to whom he dedicated two of his works, was a friend, and in 1783, the year of this publication, they had a conversation on the art of reading:

Boswell. Mr. Walker, the celebrated master of elocution, came in, and then we went up stairs into the study. I asked him if he had taught many clergymen. Johnson. ‘I hope not ....’ Boswell. ‘Will you not allow, Sir, that a man may be taught to read well?’ Johnson. ‘Why, Sir, so far as to read better than he might do without being taught, yes ....’ Boswell. ‘It is wonderful to see old [Thomas] Sheridan as enthusiastick about oratory as ever.’ Walker. ‘His enthusiasm as to what oratory will do, may be too great: but he reads well.’ Johnson. ‘He reads well, but he reads low .... Now some people have occasion to speak to an extensive audience, and must speak loud to be heard.’ Walker. ‘The art is to read strong, though low.’

Later Walker was to publish a Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) that was to retain its authority throughout the nineteenth century.

ESTC locates fourteen copies, but only four in US: Chicago, Illinois, University of Washington, and Yale. Life of Johnson, ed. Hill and Powell, iv, 206-207; Highfill, Burnim, and Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, xv, 213-215.

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