Friday, 5 August 2011

The reading public

Remember the fears and concerns generated when the internet began? People were worried it was too vast, had no regulation and would soon be full of dross information, swamping access to correct knowledge. Those same fears were present in the early eighteenth century when the new printing boom exploded.
"the multitude of BOOKS has been long complained of: they are grown too numerous, not only to procure and read, but to see, learn the names of, or even number" [Chambers's Cyclopedia, 1738].
In the seventeenth century printed books were relatively few in number and were mainly confined to the subjects of theology, history, polemics, the classics and the Bible. Books were read with care and often scrutinised several times. Book ownership was limited to the gentry and nobility and literacy was low and restricted to their class alone. Authors could only get books published using the patronage of a wealthy individual, copyright rules were restrictive and the strict control of the press meant that all publishing took place within a few streets in the city of London.

A Book of Common Prayer, 1676
Then in 1695 the Licensing Act lapsed, effectively ending censorship (although the printing of blasphamy, obscenity and seditious libel continued to be repressed) and strict control of the press ended, allowing the printing industry to finally take off in England. Provincial printing developed for the first time and the cost of the expense could be shared between printers by splitting the copyright, or by getting individuals to subscribe in advance. The market exploded with new types of publications.

No longer were books limited to a few academic subjects. Now people could read books on any topic, from romances and poems to 'how to' manuals and even travel journals. Newspapers, magazines and periodicals blossomed and were widely read. At the same time literacy rates rose and all classes finally gained access to literature. Books could either be bought or borrowed, either from circulating libraries, books clubs, coffee houses or neighbours. The 'gentile' practice of reading aloud was a desirable attribute, and families and friends read aloud to one another. Women working at chores at home, such as sewing or preserving fruit could be read to by another woman, thus making domestic chores more interesting, while disseminating knowledge. It was seen as "a specimen of English freedom" that everyone now participated in reading, as Thomas Campbell wrote in 1773 of the Chapter Coffee House in London (where you could pay a shilling for the right of one year's reading there):

"A whitesmith in his apron & some of his saws under his arm, came in, sat down and called for his glass of punch and the paper, both of which he used with as much ease as a Lord".
The Coffee House by Rita Greer, history painter, 2008
Authors, although generally badly paid, had more freedom and were no longer at the mercy of finding a high status patron - the patron now was the reading public. Authors could be anyone, including women, and publish articles and reviews in cheap magazines as well as books. Simultaneously hack journalism developed and chapbooks and abbreviated novels were widely sold by itinerant pedlars. Although books and publications could still be attentively and regularly read, they were more likely to be borrowed, skim-read and returned, rather than laboriously scrutinised as in the previous centuries. Light reading for amusement took off as a past-time. This in itself was initally seen as a worrying development. Some critics were concerned that light readers, especially women, could be corrupted and led astray by extensive reading of frivolous literature.

Tales of Wonder! by James Gillray, 1802, satirising the trend for Gothic novels

A contemporary, James Beattie (1735-1803), warned young women against novels:
"A habit of reading them breeds dislike to history, and all the substantial parts of knowledge; withdraws the attention from nature, and truth; and fills the mind with extravagant thoughts, and too often with criminal propensities".
In practice however men were just as likely as women to read the "swarms of insipid Novels, destitute of sentiment, language, or morals" [as noted in the New and Elegant Amusements for the Ladies of Great Britain published in 1772] and the reading public has never looked back. Contemporary criticisms that the classics were being swamped admist the burgeoning trashy novel and magazine slowly lost emphasis as the printing industry ballooned, and thankfully today, we can continue to enjoy an enormous range of publications, trashy or instructive.

For further information on London coffee houses and their role in stimulating literacy, see

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