University of Portsmouth's History Blog

“Literature acknowledges no boundaries”: Book reading and social class in Britain, c.1930-c.1945

An article on book reading and social class by Dr Robert James, senior lecturer in history at Portsmouth, has recently been published in the Journal of Social History. See below for the abstract, and if you want to read the article, click here.

Abstract Sitting down to read a work of fiction was a well-established leisure activity within British society by the early-twentieth century but one that was mainly enjoyed by the country’s more leisured classes. After the First World War, however, changes to the publishing industry’s working practices, coupled with the growth of the “open access” system in public libraries in the 1920s and the spread of twopenny libraries in the 1930s, created a new type of reader, drawn principally from the country’s working-class communities. This article reveals that the spread of the working-class book-reading habit prompted a series of discussions among the country’s cultural elites, publishers, and public and commercial librarians regarding how that social group engaged with the written word. Many of these commentators were highly disparaging of the working classes’ reading and book-borrowing habits and, based on a prejudiced understanding of that social group’s cultural capital, sought to influence the types of reading material available to them, particularly with regard to what was accessible in the country’s public libraries. The article argues that while the outbreak of the Second World War may have tempered these discussions somewhat, class distinctions surrounding the reading habit continued to shape people’s participation in it, thus revealing that even during a period when class divisions were supposedly blurring, attitudes toward social class and leisure remained essentially unchanged.

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