Eighteenth Century / Uncategorized

Public Reading



        Before the eighteenth century and the year of 1725  public and lower class reading was exceedingly uncommon. According to Ian Watt there are many factors that lead to majority of people being deprived of knowledge gained through exploring the wonders of books. As Watt writes,  “Burke [Edmand] estimated at 80,000 [literate people] in the nineties. This is small indeed out of at least six millions” (Watt 27). But what caused this diminutive amount of readers and what fixed this issue, are questions I plan to answer in this entry.

In the book, The Rise of the Novel, Watt states that only wealthy and upper middle class were privileged with the opportunity of knowing how to read. For instance,  “James Lackington, towards the end of the century reported that ‘in giving away religious tracts I found that some of the farmers and their children, and also three-fourths of the poor could not read” (Watt 29). Many of the lower-class civilians didn’t choose to be illiterate, but were passively forced to this decision. Books during the eighteenth century were very expensive. When the choice came between buying a book or having a week’s worth of food for the family,  the choice was obvious. Most of these families were unable to provide all the bare necessities needed to survive, leaving no room for extras. As Watt writes, “For some of these [poor individuals], especially in London and the larger towns, Charity Schools provided free educational facilities: but their main emphasis was on religious education and social discipline; the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic, the three R’s’, was a secondary aim and it was rarely pursued with much expectation of success” (Watt 29). This demonstrates that even though education was available, there could be so few that knew the skill to read. Children of lower classes especially were not thought to require the knowledge to read, for they were assumed to have jobs such as farming, agriculture and other laboring jobs. Religion was considered to be the most crucial knowledge needed during this time and therefore learning to read and write were put on the back burners for most public schools.

Watts also determines that woman specifically during this century suffered the most by not being able to read (Watt 34). Woman during this time period were allowed to partake in few social activities. Most activities included working, or doing things amongst the guys such as drinking and hunting. Some woman even had people to clean their houses. So with much time on their hands it was believed that woman were the ones who would have benefited the most from reading! During the year of 1725 according to Watt, something happened that would forever change our world. Few libraries began to be built which would allow anyone the privilege to read: “A few such libraries are recorded earlier, especially after 1725, but the rapid spread of the movement came after 1740, when the first circulating library was established in London, to be followed by at least seven others within a decade” (Watt 33). Libraries during this time however, are not what they are today. Even though there were libraries, few of these libraries allowed lower class to be able to use every single part of the actual library. many parts of the libraries were closed off to the public and charged a price for every visit. This price was manageable (compared to buying books for their actual price) and allowed many to explore the notion of reading. After library owners began to realize what a success libraries had on the public, within a few years there were around 500 new libraries (wikipidia). After libraries began to open in many different places and the word got out, they became more popular as time went on and every year hundreds of people prior than the years before were able to read.

Even though libraries were an important role that lead to the public being capable of reading, it was not the only factor. During this time is when publishing companies realized a change in their profit due to the huge outbreaks in libraries, and they soon began to create different (cheaper) copies of books.”Pope’s Iliad, at six guineas the set, was far beyond the reach of many members of the book-buying public; but very soon a pirated Dutch duodecimo [ a book made of folding a piece of part twelve times] and other cheaper versions were provided ‘for the gratification of those who were impatient to read what they could not yet afford to buy” (Watt 32).  Books were now being sold as volumes which sold for cheaper and allowed the buyer to buy as needed and with as much time in between as needed to come up with the cost.

Libraries have expanded the potential of the lower class and allowed many to become great by being more knowledgable and aware. After the eighteenth century many were capable of competing in the higher class world. The public being capable of reading was an enormous step for cultural development. Watt clearly demonstrates how the lives of thousands have changed by the notion of being literate.



Bibliography for: Reading Public



1. Watt, Ian. “The Rise of the Novel.” Google Books. University of California Press, June 2001. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. <http://books.google.com/books?id=PmwfH7X-IKAC&gt;.

2. “Salt Mine.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_mine&gt;.


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