Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The history of reading, updates from the field - Jonathan Rose's Readers' Liberation

Do you want to know what has been going on in the fresh and exciting field of the history of reading?  I do, so I read Readers’ Liberation by book historian Jonathan Rose, University of Oxford Press, 2018.  It is a 200-page synopsis of the history of reading, the academic field, I mean, a subject of high interest to readers, surely.  It has only been a coherent academic field for about thirty years.  Rose wanders around in it.

Maybe it is still not especially coherent.  Chapters cover, for example, fake news, access journalism, reading pedagogy, and prison reading programs.  That last one is fascinating.  “Larry E. Sullivan, the leading scholar of this small but enthralling literary subfield, has concluded that probably the favorite author behind bars is Friedrich Nietzsche,” which comes with both psychological benefits and costs (p. 112).  Never would have guessed.  That is as of, checking the bibliography, 1998.

This book is most valuable as a kind of annotated bibliography.  As a readable annotated bibliography.

I of course wanted to know about readers of literature.  The “Up from Middlebrow” chapter is a friendly history of a century of best-sellers and their kin, starting with the records of turn-of-the-century Muncie Library and ending with Oprah’s Book Club.  If the Muncie Library sounds familiar, that is because I wrote about it in 2014.  Rose’s summary of the 2015 book on the database, Frank Fenkelstein and James J. Connolly’s What Middletown Read: Print Culture in an American Small City, is not enormously different from my blog post, which I guess is reassuring.  You read it here first.

I have noted, reading American literature from the 1920s, how the best-sellers list begins to overlap with what we now think of as the “classics” list.  A lot of the best authors are the most famous, and vice versa.  Something was changing among readers.  In Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis mocks his suburban housewives for reading Dante at their book club (“’I've never waded through his po'try, but we learned about him in the U.,’ said Babbitt,” Ch. IX), but, gee whiz, Dante for book club, not bad, and those same housewives would have been avid readers of Sinclair Lewis, so they were in on the joke.  As Rose notes, looking over bestseller lists that include John Maynard Keynes, Eugene O’Neill, and All Quiet on the Western Front, “[i]n the age of Babbitt, everyone was reading more books and better books” (68).

Book sales – good books, bad books – exploded during World War II and only accelerated with the mass spread of paperback editions.  A couple of pages on the Armed Services Editions – “roughly eight volumes for every active duty soldier, sailor, and airman” (76) – explains one side of this.  I knew that the U.S. Army turned The Great Gatsby into a famous book, but not that there were ASE editions of Katherine Anne Porter and Virginia Woolf.

I look back on the 1950s and 1960s with envy.  “America had created something unprecedented in history – a mass highbrow market – and that left no room for middlebrow” (81).  Unprecedented in American history, Rose should have said.  Part of the appeal to me of French culture, I have noted, is the balance between the highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow.  The French read everything, their own authors but also ours, their smart authors but also their less smart ones.  Americans used to do that, too.  A lot more Americans.

So I continue to wonder about the necessary conditions, so to speak.  The value of the field, of this book, is that it historicizes reading.  It is always good to historicize.

I’ll note that most of the readers in the studies in Readers’ Liberation are American.  But the first chapter gives a quick world tour, glancing at studies of literary clubs in colonial Ghana, Cuban cigar-workers reading aloud to each other, post-war Japanese libraries, and dissident Chinese internet literature.  I have no idea how representative any of this is.  Rose can only summarize research that has actually been done.  There is always room for more.


  1. I would like to recommend "What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960" (2009) by Gordon Hutner. It is a wonderful resource for discovering long forgotten best selling books and provides an interesting analysis of trends in bookselling and marketing in those years. It is a guilty pleasure!

    by Gordon Hutner

  2. That one is not in Rose's book, thanks!

    It is such an interesting subject. I would love to read a similar book about, say, German bestsellers or whatever.


  3. Fascinating. The Armed Services Editions, featuring even Virginia Woolf! - was that something funded by our own military? And thanks for making that point about French readers reading everything. One phenomenon I've noticed over there is that the American writers the French read are often people I've never heard of in the U.S., which has led me to more than a few discoveries. I'm reminded of Italo Calvino's perhaps slightly exaggerated comment:

    “Good literature in American is clandestine, lies in unknown authors’ drawers, and only occasionally someone emerges from the gloom breaking through the leaden cloak of commercial production.”

  4. That's right, books the US military had printed for the troops. The ASE Woolf book was The Years. "156,700 copies were printed"!

    Book around the Corner has written about American novels available only in French - a French publisher but no American publisher! Nuts.

  5. Another recommendation for you:
    When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Manning (2015) has a list of ASE books published.

  6. Oh, that looks good. A good one to raid the bibliography, too.

    Manning has an interesting website, with some images I might steal. "Our Boys Want Books" - true!

  7. This does sound interesting. I'll have to find a copy.