Reading Preferences, Attitudes, and Responses: Exploring Book Culture through Edwardian Book Inscriptions

As we have seen in earlier chapters, in the Edwardian era book ownership was increasingly accessible to all as a result of expanding literacy rates and reduced book production costs. Now that working-class owners had greater freedom and ability to purchase books for themselves, many developed fresh understandings of class relations that shaped their world views and attitudes toward life. Access to new reading material challenged the working classes’ “unquestioning assent to authority” (Leavis, 1932, p. 191) and had the potential to upset the traditional social hierarchies of Edwardian Britain. Consequently, those in positions of power (whether as teachers, religious leaders, or caregivers) sought to use books as a means of “consolidating and manipulating concepts and relationships” (Fowler, 1985, p. 61), particularly when they were given as gifts or prizes in constrained or imposed forms of ownership. Although specific book choices and formats could be used to exercise control over others and exert particular ideologies (Althusser, 1971, p. 158), these dominant views could also be rejected or transformed by people who adapted and individualized their meanings to suit their own communicative goals, cultural knowledge, and social practices (Gramsci, 1971, p. 83).

These complexities surrounding books and the transmission of culture, ideology, and power were manifested and mediated through book inscriptions, which formed part of a “cultural field” (Bourdieu, 2010) wherein discourses, institutions, values, rules, and regulations came together to produce and/or transform attitudes and practices. In this chapter, I will use inscriptive evidence to investigate the types of genres, authors, titles, and publishers most frequently owned by Edwardians. Embedding an understanding of book culture within readers’ preferences, attitudes, and responses in inscriptions, as well as evidence from publishers’ catalogs and Paul Thompson’s (1970-1973) oral history study, will bring to the foreground the book as a site where a cultural struggle between dominant and popular culture took place (Gaventa, 2003, p. 9). Furthermore, it will accentuate how the transmission of culture did not simply move unidirectionally from superior to less-superior groups, but rather was a bidirectional process that had the potential to alter popular consciousness, conceptions of the world, and standards of moral conduct. As the physical appearance of the book came to carry as much meaningful information as the printed text itself by the early 20th century (Lerer, 2012, p. 127), the chapter will also explore the different book formats and binding types owned by Edwardians. Here, inscriptions provide an important testimony of who bought and chose books, how they were mediated to consumers, the speed with which the market for certain book formats moved, and the symbolic functions of material choices as status and power indicators. Throughout the chapter, investigations will be supported by individual accounts of Edwardian readers in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between book ownership, readership habits, and social hierarchies.

Book Genres in Edwardian Britain

Within the context of reading, “genre” can be defined as a style or category' of book characterized by a particular form or purpose (Chamberlain and Thompson, 1998, p. 1). An investigation of genre enables a deeper understanding of the Edwardian book market and the types of books that were available to consumers. Using inscriptions as a means to explore bestselling genres rather than reiving solely on publishers’ records has the added advantage of offering insights into how these books were acquired, as well as any differences between consumers in terms of their genre preferences and the ways that traditional power structures were consolidated or contested through these preferences.

In the early 20th century, more book genres were developed and made available to readers than ever before (Hudson, 1965, p. 326). As a result, middle- and upper-class Edwardians began to witness a growing conflict between art (e.g. canonical, male-authored “good” books) and the mass market (e.g. contemporary, female-authored “bad” books). Although debates about the definitions and merits of “high” and “low” culture existed both before and after this period, Hammond (2006, p. 8) argues that the Edwardian era represented “a zenith of the impact of these debates.” Indeed, the terms “lowbrow” and “highbrow” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary at this time (in 1906 and 1908, respectively), reflecting the anxiety that many Edwardians felt at the increasingly permeable boundaries between the two (Carle, Shaw, and Shaw, 2017, p. 7). The broad variety of competing genres available to Edwardian consumers is attested to by publishers’ catalogs of the period, which show books grouped into series according to theme (e.g. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers, Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Great Masters in Painting and Sculpture). From the 3,000 books consulted for this study, 52 distinct genres have been identified based on the book’s central topic or subject and how this topic/subject fits into established Edwardian book genres identified by Hudson (1965), Eliot (1994), Kemp, Mitchell, and Trotter (1997), and Wild (2017). Appendix 6 features the complete list of genres alongside their frequencies of occurrence.

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