Friday, May 28, 2010

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

A brief time out from obsessing over all the exciting new forthcoming books to shine a light on a deserving backlist title.

In 2001, Yale published a devastatingly brilliant work of social history by Jonathan Rose called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. (This is the old edition jacket image.) This year we're bringing out a new, larger format second edition.

If there’s such a thing as a community of readers, this book should be among our founding documents. It’s as much a “people’s history” as Howard Zinn or Studs Terkel might have done with the same material. It’s practically an oral history.

Lurking beneath the bland, academic sounding title is one of the wisest, slyest, wittiest pieces of writing on books and readers I’ve ever encountered.

Rose’s guiding proposition is that historically, in Britain anyway, books and reading were NOT actually the exclusive purview of elites, but were appropriated by working people to further themselves in truly original and astonishing ways. We owe not only books as we know them to those 18th century reading obsessives, but also much of our politics.

This is absolutely a first-rate scholarly book, but it’s not a boring, demanding one. Rose relies heavily on the power of individual anecdote and oddball incident to make his case. For anyone interested in books, reading, labor history, radical history, and eccentric characters, this is a cornucopia of rich, hilarious stories.

Like many booksellers, I had a somewhat unsettled relationship with my own higher education, and largely taught myself what seemed important to know through the books I haphazardly read. Rose is out to redeem the reputation of the autodidact.

The British working masses were the original autodidacts! And the Bible was the original autodidactic text! (Not, alas, for me. “How can you know anything about art if you don’t know anything about the Bible?” my friend and colleague Uwe once correctly challenged me.)

I’m as excited about this new paperback edition as I am about anything we’ve published this year.

Yes, there are a few obstacles. The title makes it seem like something you’d be forced to read in a required history course. Flip through it and you’ll see lots of charts, graphs, and unfamiliar names. And at $33, the price may scare off a few casual readers. Though I defy you to find a more rewarding reading experience for six cents a page.

A brief sampling of his subjects:

- The flourishing of autodidactic culture among Scottish weavers in the 18th century resulted in one of the highest literacy levels in the world. Weavers as a group were “legendary readers,” noted for their habit of “reading at the loom.”

- Intellectual proclivities among tradesmen were intolerable to 18th century gentlemen. In 1812, radical tailor Francis Place lamented that “to accumulate books, and to be supposed to know something of their contents…was an abominable offense in a tailor, if not a crime; had it been known to all my customers that I accumulated a considerable library in which I spent all the leisure time I could spare…half of them at the least would have left me.”

- Autodidactic workers who taught themselves to read were markedly less deferential to power. Ferment was linked directly to print. After the First World War, historian Robert Roberts pointed out that “many more books, periodicals and newspapers were to be seen in ordinary homes. My mother recalled the plaint of our burial club collector. ‘Some of ‘em are reading mad!’ he grumbled. ‘They buy paper after paper, but won’t pay the weekly penny these days to bury their dead!”

- In the mid- 19th Century, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe had a greater working-class readership than any book save the Bible.

- Rose describes the flowering of the “Mutual Improvement Societies” in early 20th century working class Britain- self-organized groups of a dozen to upwards of 100 people who met regularly in their own homes or churches. A member would typically deliver a paper on politics, religion, ethics, literature, or other “useful knowledge”, followed by discussion. “The aim was to develop verbal and intellectual skills among people who had never been encouraged to speak or think.”

- “In the first years of the 19th Century, shepherds in the Cheviot Hills maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated nooks and crannies in boundary walls. The next shepherd who came that way could borrow it and leave another in its place, so that each volume was gradually carried through a circuit of 30 to 40 miles, on which the shepherds only occasionally met.”

- In 1854, Samuel Taylor, a passionate literacy advocate and a clay worker, began to read aloud from Crimean War dispatches published in The Times in a market square in Hanley. These readings attracted 8-10,000 people. The authorities welcomed them as “a way of keeping the lower orders out of pubs and music halls” and offered use of the town hall. Initially free, he began charging a penny, and by 1858 the movement had swept Staffordshire towns, attracting 60-70,000 people for selected readings from the works of popular writers. (In a district containing 100,000 people!)

- And yet… any kind of serious sustained writing by working-class people often ran against the grain of working-class culture, and was considered selfish and unneighborly. Reading was acceptable providing it was a collective activity, but solitary writing was suspect. Novelist Margaret Thomson Davis recalls her mother scolding “There’s a lot more important things you could be doing than sitting there scribbling. Give that floor a good scrub, for instance.”

There are so many quiet backlist treasures passively sitting on warehouse shelves, waiting for discovery by booksellers and readers. The reappearance of this one is cause for celebration.

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