University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘Pleasure in reading is the true function of all books’: Cultural critics, public librarians, and working-class reading in early-twentieth century Britain

In this blog Dr Rob James, Senior Lecturer in History, looks at the growth of reading as a leisure activity among the working classes in Britain during the early twentieth century and considers how broader society viewed this expansion. Rob specialises in researching people’s leisure practices, and teaches a number of units that focus on one of the most popular leisure pursuits of the first half of the twentieth century, going to the cinema.

An early British lending library

Do you ever think about how other people view the books you choose to read? Over the course of the last hundred or so years, people’s reading habits have been subject to intense scrutiny, particularly the habits of working-class readers. A wide variety of individuals, including cultural critics and public librarians, wanted to shape working-class people’s reading habits to ensure that they only read the ‘right’ type of fiction. Of course, relaxing with a book, particularly a work of fiction, was well-established as a popular leisure activity within British society from the nineteenth century onwards. It was, however, an activity that was mainly enjoyed by the country’s more leisured classes up until the early-twentieth century. After the First World War, though, changes to the publishing industry’s working practices, coupled with the growth of the ‘open access’ system in public libraries in the 1920s – when people could choose books freely from the shelves as they do today – and the spread of cheap lending libraries in the 1930s, created a new type of reader, drawn principally from the country’s working-class communities. This spread of the working-class book reading habit raised much concern among people higher up the social ladder, and there was lots of discussion about it within the publishing trade.

The wide-scale commercialization of the book trade was believed to be one of the reasons for the growing interest in reading by the working classes. After the First World War publishers began to use modern, aggressive marketing techniques to advertise their wares. As one contemporary noted, the publisher ‘now elaborately prepares the ground for any new book, plans a campaign for it, advertises much more largely, and vies with his competitors in the use of every legitimate means of publicity.’ [1] Many of the publishing trade’s heavyweights were very critical of this trend towards commercialization, however, and in 1933 a leading article in the trade paper The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record pointedly noted that: ‘Books are not in the same category as soap, chocolates and cigarettes.’ [2] Cultural critics were equally dismissive of the mass marketing of books, and in 1932 the literary critic Q.D. Leavis argued that: ‘The effect of the increasing control of Big Business […] is to destroy among the masses a desire to read anything which by the widest stretch could be included in the classification ‘literature’. [3] It was this aspect, the effects of commercialization on the reading habits of ‘the masses’ that was really at the heart of the matter. Time and again, it was the working classes’ desire to consume, as Leavis disapprovingly put it, ‘fiction that required the least effort to read,’ that attracted most criticism. [4]

An example of ‘good’ fiction

Many public librarians were equally disapproving of their library users’ reading practices. For example, Edward Green, who was chief librarian of Halifax public libraries observed: ‘In recent years a vast army of new readers – the product of the elementary school – has been recruited from a lower mental strata, and the intelligent use of the printed page needs more encouragement and direction.’ [5] Manchester’s chief public librarian, Charles Nowell likewise noted that the library’s principal aim should be ‘to maintain a healthy public interest in the novels and romances which are worth reading.’ [6] Other public librarians were less concerned, however, and one of the most vocal supporters of including fiction in public libraries was chief librarian of Swinton and Pendlebury library service, Frederick J. Cowles. Despite making it known that he preferred readers to borrow ‘good’ fiction, Cowles championed the public librarians’ right to include all types of fiction, for all classes of reader, in their libraries. This led to a long-running debate being played out in The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, and Cowles attracted much criticism. However, some librarians did jump to his defense. Arthur E. Gower, for example, who was librarian and secretary in Grays, Essex, defended the public library’s practice of stocking all forms of fiction by stating that librarians were merely the ‘servants of the public.’ [7] Indeed, Gower claimed that he wanted ‘no higher office,’ concluding that ‘Pleasure in reading is the true function of all books.’ [8]

Despite these concessions to the working classes’ reading tastes, the mutual improvement ethos – which had been so central to the setting up of public libraries in the first place – continued to hold sway well in to the twentieth century, particularly due to the large numbers of readers from that social class choosing to turn to the written word for entertainment and relaxation. So when you next sit down to read a book, perhaps you’d like to think about what these public librarians and cultural critics would have had to say about your reading tastes. Would they be nodding approvingly as you read through the works of Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, or would they be shaking their heads with despair as you browsed the pages of the latest ‘trashy’ novel? [9]



[1] Frank Swinnerton, ‘Authorship’, in John Hampden, ed. The Book World: A New Survey (London, 1935), pp. 12-35: p. 14.

[2] Anon., ‘Books as commodities’, The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 22 April 1933, p. 395.

[3] Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London, 1932), p. 17.

[4] Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public, p. 27.

[5] Edward Green, The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 3 June 1933, p. 605.

[6] Charles Nowell, ‘The Public Library’, in John Hampden, ed. The Book World: A New Survey (London, 1935), pp. 181-194: p. 188.

[7] Arthur E. Gower, The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, 26 March 1932, p. 327.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The novels of Dickens and Hardy were repeatedly mentioned as the types of ‘good’ fiction that the working classes should be encouraged to read.


To read the article that examines these issues in more depth, published in the Journal of Social History, click here.

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