Readers and the reading public
Johnson was convinced of the power and persuasiveness of reading books, just as he was a supporter of the new world of commercial print. Writers believe in the power of the word, authors in the power of publishing. Yet Johnson’s picture of the book reader raises questions about the scope and nature of the reading public. Who were they? How did they obtain reading matter and what did they read? (Figure 4.1). Answers to these questions have to begin with literacy. The ability to decipher a text is a
crucial threshold that must be crossed before anyone can claim to be a member of the reading public. The long-term trend in Britain between the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries was of growing literacy. The most reliable ﬁgures (and they are not very reliable) show a gradual, though not unbroken improvement in male literacy from 10 per cent in 1500 to 45 per cent in 1714 and 60 per cent in the mid-eighteenth century. Female literacy rates were lower – 1 per cent in 1500, 25 per cent in 1714 and 40 per cent in 1750. This large trend conceals considerable variation: an elite of aristocrats, gentry and rich merchants were far more literate than the poor – indeed, almost totally literate by 1600; below the elite, shopkeepers were the most literate with a rate of 95 per cent by the third quarter of the eighteenth century; at the same time, most labourers could not read at all. Market town-dwellers were more likely to read than country folk; the highest levels of literacy were recorded in London, where female literacy grew especially fast, rising from 22 to 66 per cent between the 1670s and 1720s. Overall, literacy does not seem to have greatly increased in the late eighteenth century and may even have declined. The measure by which these conclusions are drawn is not altogether reliable. The only
consistent data that survive over time are signatures, but is the capacity to sign one’s name an index of the ability to read? We know that most people learned to read before they could write and signatures therefore probably underestimate readership. But we do not know if some groups were likely only to read and not to write, or whether the ratio of readers to writers changed over time. Could a higher proportion of the humbler members
of society read but not write? If they could read, what could they read: a black letter ballad with its cramped, thick gothic print, a book with a roman typeface, a letter-writer’s script? Is it true, as many commentators have suggested, that the ﬁgures have a gender bias against women because they were more likely to read, even to a high standard, but not to be able to write? When asked these questions historians can only respond with uncertainty. Perhaps we need to consider the problem rather diﬀerently. The growth in the reading
public after 1700 would not have been possible without the gradual spread of literacy, which had been continuing for two centuries. Without readers the spurt in publishing that began in the late seventeenth century would have been impossible; literary seed would have fallen on barren ground or, more accurately, would never have been sown at all. What changed was less the demand for printed matter than the circumstances that aﬀected its supply: the removal of restraints that crown and conservative booksellers had jointly imposed in the past. The transformation was wrought less by growing literacy than by an increased provision of reading matter, a development that changed the nature of reading itself. This change has sometimes been described as a shift from ‘intensive’ to ‘extensive’
reading. Intensive reading, it is argued, takes place in societies where there are few books; because of their rarity and expense, they are treated as sacred objects, subject to repeated rereading and intense scrutiny. ‘Extensive’ reading, on the other hand, is the consequence of a well-developed print culture in which plenty of varied works are available. The individual book becomes less sacred, the reader more cursory, willing, as the bluestocking Frances Boscawen put it, ‘not to read strictly, but feuiller’.