Eighteenth-century cultural historians have long asserted that the British book market was flooded with sharply discounted classics after the 1774 Donaldson copyright verdict, giving birth to a middle-class reading public and radically altering the use of literature as a social and political steering mechanism. Despite the work of William St. Clair and others in recent years, the empirical basis for this claim has never been systematically examined. In particular, the vibrant and extensive resale market for literary works in the eighteenth century has been almost wholly ignored. A preliminary review of this market through its period auction catalogues and Bent's retail pricing indexes suggests that the cost of literature for those buying to read varied minimally between 1750 and 1790. Price data for major figures and works is given in both real and nominal terms, correcting for purchasing power differentials, opportunity costs, and alternative access to reading material. Signal attention is granted selected editions of Milton and Shakespeare as the dynasty-making authors and editions of the era. What emerges is a late-century book market identifiable not so much by price movements as by market complexity and product differentiation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, therefore, the cheap literature hypothesis fails in all relevant particulars. Its inability to underpin widely held assumptions about literary canon formation and common reading habits should encourage us to rethink the complex relationship between culture and society at the time. Above all, we should consider more seriously the importance of source work to effective theory building.


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pp. 353-384
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