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  • Literacy & Book Production
  • Katherine Baxter
Mary Hammond. Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880–1914. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. xii + 209 pp. $99.95

The huge increase in literacy during the second half of the nineteenth century in Britain as a result of developing mandatory educational provisions has long been acknowledged. Yet little has been done so far to investigate what this increase in literacy meant for book production. Literary scholars of the fin de siècle, the period when this burgeoning literacy began to bear fruit in the marketplace, still tend to devote their energies to studying the coteries of high modernism. Popular culture enters the scene as an influence on these coteries and individuals more often than it is considered as a subject in itself. What study has been made of nonmodernist fiction tends to focus on individual authors, often with a rehabilitating agenda, or appears in the adjacent fields of cultural studies and history. It is therefore a tonic to read Reading, Publishing and the Formation of Literary Taste in England, 1880–1914.

Hammond's first chapter attends to the development of libraries during the second half of the nineteenth century. Here she explores the resistance of public libraries to fiction, which was seen as potentially corrupting and, at the very least, as unimproving. This resistance to fiction was also a way for public libraries to differentiate themselves from subscription libraries, such as Mudie's, whose main business was fiction. The public libraries in contrast sought to present themselves as spaces for self-improvement, supervised by trustworthy librarians whose job it was to "guide" readers to material best suiting their needs. Yet as Hammond reminds us, Mudie's selection too was, on the whole, conservative, marketing itself on the basis of its moral rectitude. There is a wealth of suggestive information here which sometimes proves more tantalizing than satisfying, in part because of the impossibility of covering the subject in a single chapter. However, occasionally Hammond fails to contextualise her information fully, even where it would have been possible to do so. Thus, when discussing the lower lending rates of fiction in Whitechapel, as compared with other libraries such as [End Page 235] in Leeds, she fails to explain whether there were similarly low lending rates for nonfiction. Moreover, there is no acknowledgment of the high proportion of non-English-language speakers in Whitechapel in that period, far more than would be found in Leeds, say, at the time, which no doubt had a significant impact on how English language books were used and consulted.

Hammond's second chapter on the railway bookstall is more thoroughly successful because more adventurous and more enlightening. Here she explores the psychological impact of train travel and its dynamic relationship with fiction. If the railways exploded the relationship between spatial and temporal movement by increasing the velocity of that relationship, so, too, the fiction available at railway bookstalls was suspected to be dangerously "fast." On the one hand reading became a way to manage new social interactions brought about by this new mode of public transport, a way in fact to limit social interaction by providing the reader-passenger with a visible indicator that he or she was engaged in another fictional space to the one physically occupied, a rationale for reading particularly recommended to women. Yet, on the other hand, reading did not necessarily deter interaction and might well act as a cover for social and sexual interest or even indicate the capacity for deviant behaviour. Hammond makes reference here to the early film The Kiss in the Tunnel (U.K. Director G. A. Smith, 1899) in which a man reading a newspaper and a woman reading a book alone in a railway carriage share a passionate embrace as they go through a tunnel, implying a relationship among fast travel, fast women, and reading. As a result of books' ambiguous role in the social (and potentially sexual) negotiation of this new mode of transport, railway booksellers in the late nineteenth century worked hard to dispel their image as purveyors of sleaze. Instead they adopted the morally conservative image discussed earlier in relation to Mudie's, balancing this...


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pp. 235-238
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Will Be Archived 2021
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