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For centuries books remained luxury items that only the wealthiest could buy. The technological innovations in printing and paper manufacturing in the nineteenth century, however, lead to an expansion of the book market. The production costs dropped because printing became more efficient. The expanding literacy, growing wealth and free time all helped to increase the interest in books and reading. Publishers responded to the new demand by experimenting with new types of products from the serialized novels to cheap reprints of classics and popular science titles. Books and marketing campaigns were designed to attract the different segments of the literary marketplace. Despite this boom in sales, books did not lose their symbolical value. Books continued to suggest respectability and culture and therefore book owners prominently exhibited their books. Gentlemen designed libraries and studies where they stored their large collections of exclusive leather bound books and rare editions and in the working class households the modest collection of one or two books was placed so that the small volumes could be seen through a window or as a first thing when entering the room. For the emerging middle class books were particularly important for demonstrating their social standing. They could draw clear boundaries to the lower classes whose poor taste in books they despised and try to emulate the upper class reading habits. But no matter what they did with their books, they never seemed to get it quite right. Their reading habits were nothing like the gentlemanly pursuit of browsing books for leisure.

During the second half of the century the middle class passion for books was both ridiculed and moralized in the daily press. A number of essayists were concerned about the obsessive reading habits this class seemed to possess. Readers devoured books without any thought whether the reading material was proper or without understanding what they read. Popular novels, murder stories and romances were considered as destructive as excessive eating and drinking were. All excessive behavior led to a lack of control of one’s self, and if reckless reading spread, it could have severe consequences to the entire British society. Moreover, uncontrolled reading was also a health hazard. Numerous writers noted how their countrymen seemed to be keen to read before going to bed. This certainly was destructive behavior, because overtaxing one’s mind just before sleeping damaged the much needed rest. Women, in particular, were susceptible to the false reading patterns because of their weaker nature. It was observed how middle class mothers spent their days reading cheap literature instead of rearing their children and taking care of the other domestic duties they had. This, again, put the nation in danger, because it set a bad example for children. In short, the middle class needed advice on what to read and on how to read.

Meanwhile, many were troubled because books were read too little. Women’s magazines instructed their readers on how to decorate drawing rooms with books. Books could be used to give a social and aesthetic uplift to any room, and more and more attention was given to the aesthetic qualities of books. Traditionally, books had been sold in nondescript paper covers and readers had been able to choose covers according to their own taste, but by the mid-century books were primarily sold with ready wrappings. Although readers lost an opportunity to select the covers, they were now offered instead a wider range of books with stylishly decorated covers. Publishers realized that Victorians, fond of decorativeness, were attracted to books with colorful cloth covers and embossed ornamental decorations, and to appeal to their customers, publishing houses began to release handsomely wrapped table books, gift editions and special Christmas issues. Book buyers were delighted by this new range of literary products and the possibilities they offered for adorning middle-class homes. Without a doubt, books had become decorative items and collectables that were not necessarily purchased to be read, but to be admired. Even bibliophiles, one concerned writer noted, seemed to be more interested in hunting down rare copies and exhibiting them in their studies, than in actually reading them.

By the end of the century, books had become precious to pretty much everyone in Britain. Scholars were not unmoved by the development. For historians books were, first and foremost, a professional matter. Owning an extensive library was usually a necessity, because many of the first-rank scholars chose to live far away from the venerable libraries of London, Oxford and Cambridge. Unlike their continental colleagues who did not seem to get enough of sitting in libraries, English historians suffered from a rare dislike of reading rooms. Henry Thomas Buckle detested libraries and stayed as far away from them as possible. Nor was Edward Freeman renowned for conducting research in archives or libraries. He preferred the quietness of his own study and occasional visits to historic towns and battle fields. Thus, to be able to continue the scholarly pursuits, historians had to purchase as many studies and published records as they could afford. Occasionally, kind librarians consented to lend to them rare editions to be studied at home, but usually they had to rely on what they owned. Consequently, histories were published with apologetic prefaces where the author explained that due to his remote residency, he had been forced to make some compromises with the source material, and that he hoped his readers understood and forgave him for not consulting every relevant document and study.

Although historians build their libraries primarily for scholarly reasons, this did not mean that they had a purely professional relationship with their books. They used books and the endless talk about books to underline their middle class and intellectual status. Their libraries did not contain any of the detestable popular novels, they proclaimed. Instead, historians’ libraries were filled with serious scholarly works and classical texts. Furthermore, books gave historians comfort and joy. Thomas Babington Macaulay was highly disturbed when his library was temporarily upside down because carpenters were there building new shelves to accommodate his growing collection of books. He only calmed down once he was again surrounded by his familiar books. The private library was a great source of pride for Macaulay who kept track of all the books he owned. In 1850 he marked down in his journal that he had at least 7000 titles in his collection, and that the number of volumes kept on growing.

Historians, in spite of their, prejudices to popular literature and cheap marketing tricks, were not indifferent about the aesthetics of books. First of all, they knew that an attractive appearance helped to sell historical studies. It was obvious that they could not afford to overlook the material aspects of books and therefore they eagerly consulted their publishers about bindings, paper and quality of illustrations. A worthy historical study deserved equally worthy wrappings. After all, quite a many of them seemed to think that there was nothing more disappointing than to have their hard work wrapped into covers that did not look quite as how they had anticipated them to look like.


The Macmillan correspondence, The British Library

Thomas, William (ed.), The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Vol. II. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.

Mays, Kelly J., “The disease of reading and Victorian periodicals” in John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten (eds.), Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British publishing and reading practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.