This was a fairly interesting social history about reading in the 19th century. Mostly it focused on the different movements to get people reading, and the debates and attempts to control what they should and shouldn't be reading. It had a lot of quite fascinating information in it. It was written in 1957 so was totally free of any of the post-modern interpretations of reading which I quite liked. It did however seem a little anecdotal in it's evidence of what people were reading. But there was also a fair ammount of figures to contrast things with, in particular the cost of books and periodicals related to wages and other products. (At one point a book cost the same as a month's supply of beer! Thank god we don't have to make that choice today!)
The book started looking at the early 18th century and the birth of the "trashy" novel. There were some great quotes about the evils of library a one from Sir Anthony Absolute who said, "A circulating library in a town is an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge" (64) One letter in the Evening Standard in 1891 complained of clerks wasting their time "devoring all the most trivial literary trash...whilst many a home is neglected and uncared for owing to the all-absorbed novel-reading wife" he went on to say that "he'd rather see a young man hanging about a public house than spending his time in these places" (232-233).
There was also an interesting bit about the start of W.H. Smiths. Apparently there were bookstalls at the stations that were run by the widows and injured employees of the railways that would sell magazines, beer, sandwiches and sweets to travelers and from the 1840s novels. These novels were "not only cheap but nasty, predominately translated from the French; it was said in fact that people went to railway stations for the books they were ashamed to seek in respectable shops"(301). Smiths won the right to replace these sellers with their own shops in response to such criticism.
I learned a lot about the different types of libraries that were set up in the 19th century, education, the different trends in the cost of books, and the way the "betters" tried to control the masses through reading. It reminded me a lot of the arguments Gaskell used in My Lady Ludlow. One interesting point was raised in the argument in the 1840s that building schools would completely illiminate crime, and that the more schools were built the more prisons would be closed as they tried to link ignorance with the crime rate (142).
All in all the book did an excellent job of conteracting the simplistic view that more effective methods of printing, led to cheaper books which read to more people reading. It analysed the cost of paper, the need to educate people so they could read, and the effect of buying verses loaning books, as well as the rise of newspapers and periodicals.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the social history of reading or the history of libraries. Though I feel like I should go and read something written in the past 10 years to make sure it's not all been completely changed in modern scholarship....Continua