The Reading Hordes

An excerpt from The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Terry Kearney/Flickr
Terry Kearney/Flickr

Between 1800 and 1914, the populations of Europe and the United States surged, as did literacy rates, creating a demand for public access to books as a source of education and recreation. Thus, the public library movement was born, and with it came a new culture war over the question of who should have access to books, and what books they should be allowed (or not allowed) to read. As Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen describe in this excerpt from their new history of libraries, some doubters lamented these rising literacy rates and the proliferation of popular forms of literature, like detective fiction and crime thrillers.

Critics of the new reading public received unexpected support from many of the twentieth century’s literary elite. Aldous Huxley, George Moore and D. H. Lawrence all deplored the reading preferences of the great unwashed. In particular, D. H. Lawrence (who had read too much Nietzsche) was, like T. S. Eliot, an enemy of mass education: ‘Let all schools be closed at once … the great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Ironically, Lawrence first came across Nietzsche in Croydon Public Library, one of many institutions animated by the desire to make the fruits of learning available to a mass readership.

This disdain for new readers did little justice to the seriousness of the engagement with literature of at least a portion of this new reading public. When the journalist and social commentator Henry Mayhew examined the bookstalls of mid nineteenth-century London, he found working men already regular customers. Their preferences were largely for established classics of the English literary canon: the novels of Goldsmith, Fielding and Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare of course, the poems of Pope, Burns and Byron. Dickens made a fortune by understanding the temper of this expanding market and in due course the publishers cashed in with series of 1-shilling reprints of out-of-copyright materials.

What these readers lacked was not ambition or intellect, but time. This helps to explain why nineteenth-century legislation for shorter working days helped boost the library movement, and why libraries were also more intensely frequented in times of war and economic depression. Wars inevitably closed down other opportunities for recreation, leading to an increase in the demand for books, both from troops in the field and on the home front. While libraries were all too often on the frontlines of the industrial warfare of the twentieth century, war did a great deal to inculcate the habit of reading: the raw material without which the library cannot survive.

Excerpted from The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Charlie Lee is an assistant editor of Harper’s Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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