A Very Brief History Of Reading

Reading & Writing

Everyone’s history of reading is personal. As the unnamed teenager who was asked about the history of London said; ‘It started with me. It ends with me.’ In other words, we can only see it from our perspective. Here’s mine;

There was a time when literature was a hobby for those with an education, something with which to while away the long hours of a summer afternoon. If you were well educated, it meant you had wealth and therefore servants, and so your daily existence was less about finding food or keeping warm and more about finding something to do.

Few working class early Victorians were educated well enough to enjoy the higher pursuits, and the situation continued in stasis throughout the length of then 19th century. So when Sir Arthur Sullivan sought to marry, his intended attempted to make him stop writing songs for the masses, who had championed his operettas in music-halls, and turn his talents to high church requiems, so that those in her class could admire him.

In the 20th century, writing for the masses found its feet with pulp heroes like Sapper, Raffles, Sexton Blake and Bulldog Drummond. It stayed entirely separate from the ‘higher’ writing of Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, who questioned life and psychological states while the lower orders merely craved escape. However, the newly empowered middle classes could enjoy novelists like Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Somerset Maughan, who were able to cross the line to some extent by writing in a style that did not rely on the experience of privilege.

Then came an extraordinary heyday in the postwar years when the two halves joined and blurred together. Paperbacks which brought serious thinkers, experimentalists and pulp-lovers together, so Bertrand Russell and JG Ballard and Alan Sillitoe and RD Laing could be found alongside Eric Ambler and Neville Shute. It seemed a new world order of literature beckoned. If the class system fell – as everyone in the 1960s was convinced it would – surly the barriers in literature would fall too, and create a new level playing field of free-thinking literature.

But several things happened that reset the clock to Victorian times – television became the popular medium, the class system endured, the rich/poor gap grew again, and books were once more separated out by demarcations of education and economy.

So we reach the present time, wherein ‘thinking’ fiction is placed on the general fiction shelf, and everything else is given a genre. We have elitist bookshops in wealthy parts of cities and popular bookshops in working towns. Physical books have once more become an expensive luxury for those who can afford them, and afford the time to read them.

But the internet is once again blurring those lines. While publishers will still happily trot authors off to a library in the Midlands to read to a handful of senior citizens, it’s easier and faster to find new readership through social networking, and the lower online price of e-books encourages a new young readership.

I did a panel in Bristol at which a young man stood up and said; ‘I’ve been listening to you all talking about the magic of bookshops for an hour, but none of my friends has bought a book in a shop for the last 5 years because they’re too expensive.’

Higher literature now finds itself in a corner of low sales and low appeal, and the middle swathe has taken power. We aspire, and may be persuaded to do so in our reading. E-reading is allowing us to do just that by making purchases we might never have considered when confronted with the same titles on bookshop shelves.

All arguments happily received.

12 comments on “A Very Brief History Of Reading”

  1. Cid says:

    I saw the title and thought you’d suddenly got an interest in football, given last night’s news.

  2. Pietro Rossi says:

    I remember when I was a kid, in those pre-video/DVD days, all popular programmes would have a novelisation, unlike today where they all release a DVD. I believe that if people like a TV programme they will buy a book which could stimulate the pleasure of reading (with constant availability).

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Excellent. On your point about WWII and publishing: the paperback was greatly invented, and really came into its own, during the WWII. Paper was scare and expensive and getting books to the troops required cheap and light materials. A lot of reading was done in down time and soldiers shared books (Still have some of Father’s browning paperbacks in storage, some with the pages you had to cut to seperate.) Paperbacks became “everyman/woman’s” edition, but availability and cost drove even the 1% to reading them. They fit in your pocket. Gertrude the kangaroo of Pocket Books, and the Penguin in Britian. As you’ve written ereaders are now making serious waves. The Dept. of Justice here has taken on several big publishers for price fixing, as indeed, the publishers did, some have caved in, but others are fighting it, including Penguin. One small house has withdrawn its children’s 1,500 titles from Amazon because it has a network of hardworking “drummers” – more like Tupperware salemen/women actually. Every third day, it seems, the NYT has a story on Amazon vs the bookworld. We live in interesting times. – And after the photos of the white crispness and uncluttered look of your receiving rooms, what a contrast your private space is. Tell us that’s a stuffed fox and not Crippen.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    It took a while for the reputation of the “yellow novel” or *dirty French book* to abate. Were the early paperbacks made from unbleached pulp and were they all translations of French novelists? I remember books my parents bought with “the complete book, nothing omitted” on the reverse of the title page along with “conforms to government regulations on the conservation of paper.”
    As for the price of books, how much does it cost to go to a movie these days? On a cost per hour of enjoyment I think the book still comes out ahead and certainly the paperback editions do. Otherwise there is the library where the author is not benefiting as much as if you bought his/her book but does get something. Hard covers do seem expensive but I really, really don’t like the deal Amazon demands from publishers so they (Amazon) can offer titles cheaper. I buy some in hard some in paper editions and I still don’t have an e-reader (or a smart phone or text messager or anything like that).

  5. Gretta says:

    I pretty much only set foot into a bricks’n’mortar bookshop if there’s a sale on, now, or if I’m in another city. Wellington is wonderful for bookstores, incl those sort of off-shoot places from the big stores, where they put all their cheapo stuff. I’m with the bloke in Bristol; book in local chain stores = $35-40, via Fishpond website(with free postage) = c$15-20, sometimes even less, and frequently sourced from the UK. No contest, really.

    I would never have heard of your books, admin, had it not been for the interwebs. Likewise, Malcolm Pryce, LC Tyler and Shamini Flint all weedled their way into my bookshelves(well, bookpiles, to be accurate) via ‘People who bought x, bought y’, and my slowly-expanding collection of Judge Dees came courtesy of you.

    All hail technology and global communications(although I still rebel, wholeheartedly, against eBooks).

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Gretta – So you are a Judge Dee fan. And Admin got you started terrific. My wife and I love them and the books we have, even the hard covers, show the wear. I’ve read them all twice and my wife at least double that. His collection of short stories – Judge Dee At Work with eight stories is nearly as good as a novel. Don’t spend you money on A Given Day, an un-Dee novel, its not worth it, really. If you didn’t live so farrr away I’d loan you what you haven’t read. Keep expanding the collection.

  7. Gretta says:

    Judge Dee at Work was the first one I read, Dan. 🙂 I’ve read two or three since then, and have another three in one of my many ‘to read’ piles. Making a note of A Given Day, thank ye kindly. And thank you for the offer to lend me your books. If we were in the same postcode, I’d take you up on it! 🙂

  8. Alan G says:

    My local library sells books which do not get borrowed. It is a bit depressing that the sale space has doubled in the last six months.

    I try to help rehouse these abandoned books but am running out of space. Fortunately the local Resident’s Association (of which I’m vice chair)has a shiny large new office so a little community book swap or book take is going to happen.

  9. karin says:

    Nowadays the bookstore is only for visiting when you just have to own one of your favorite authors new books right away. Gone are the days of buying something by someone you have never heard of because it looks interesting – I can’t afford to make a mistake. Which is a shame because that is how I found one of my most treasured books (The Bone People by Keri Hulme). Back then I had a disposable income & no mortgage!
    I discovered B & M at my local library. They give books away for free & I recently brought home The Hollow-Eyed Angel by Janwillem van de Wetering. Fantastic wit! It reminded me of our Mr. Fowler, in that it had quirky, intelligent humourous characters who also happened to be investigating crimes.
    I guess now I need to research these Judge Dee books.

  10. Gretta says:

    karin – I’ve heard of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People! New Zealand’s only Booker Prize winner, and one of the judges on that particular panel was a certain Joanna Lumley.

    <— New Zealander, Joanna Lumley fan. 🙂

  11. Kate Riedel says:

    Anyone acquainted with John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, which gives a rather disturbing view of Virginia Wolfe et al. vs. the newly educated lower and lower middle classes? I always knew there was something I didn’t care for in that Bloomsbury lot. The book is pertinent to this discussion, although it was published before e-books and even before Amazon really took off.
    My husband and I are new Bryant @ May fans, by the way — the most quotable pair of detectives since Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin.
    Kate Riedel, Toronto

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Another Canadian! Welcome Kate! We went south to Washington State for a few days (the tulips are out) and found a welcoming bookstore with a number of customers having a good rummage. I bought a charming book about some bears for a child’s birthday, The Heart Shaped Box, which was recommended to me some time ago, and Around the World in Eighty Days, which I realized I’d never read. The clerk (owner?) said she’d been watching her daughter dance to the theme song from Around the World and realized they didn’t have the book in the store. I buy on line and paperbacks mostly but I do love a bookstore. A friend’s book club met this weekend to discuss The Hare With Amber Eyes. They were all very moved by the book but suddenly realized my friend’s copy (hard cover)was different from theirs. There are no pictures in the paper back and now there are four guys determined to buy new hard back copies so they can have the pictures. Guess it all depends on the moment.

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