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Monday musings on Australian literature: War-time reading tastes, World War 1

August 6, 2018
Rudyard Kipling, Sea warfare

First pub. 1916

For the longest time I’ve understood that during war-time people turn to lighter forms of entertainment, to musicals in film, for example, or to escapist books in their reading. However, the truth – of course – is more complex, as I discovered in Trove’s digitised newspapers. I was fascinated by how often the matter was, in fact, discussed in papers of the say – and so am sharing a very small selection of those discussions here, with you. Because …

I have, I admit, only done a brief search of Trove. There’s a lot of material there. However, I hope what I’ve found is representative of how it went … I have, at least, managed to represent the continent, reasonably well.

World War 1

During the war

In Melbourne’s The Argus in July 1915, the writer says that

Since the war begin the taste of the reading public has changed considerably and less attention is now given to works of fiction than formerly.

The evidence for this comes from “the annual report of the trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria”. This report said that “the demand for newspapers and periodicals dealing largely with war questions has been very great and several files of newspapers have had to be duplicated” but that there was, overall, a decrease in the number of borrowers and of books read, particularly in fiction. That puts paid to the entertainment theory doesn’t it – though this was early in the war. Perhaps things change when wars drag on?

Perhaps it did, because in February 1916, the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, reported on reading stats from Melbourne’s Athenaeum, a public institution that included a subscription library. They found a significant increase in fiction borrowing in the previous year, while borrowing in “geography, voyages, travels, and descriptive works” was nearly halved – “a rather remarkable falling off”, the paper said – and there was a similar, near-halving, in “biography, speeches, and correspondence.”

Post-war

Ten years after the war, that is in January 1928, The Brisbane Courier had a short piece titled “Literary tastes”. It referred to wartime tastes, stating that “During the tragic years of warfare there was a “run” on light and breezy books evidently to distract the mind of the reader from the sterner realities of life.” In other words, tastes did seem to change when the war wasn’t over in a year!

Anyhow, after that, they say, tastes changed, turning to “books of a philosophical character” and then a little later again, to “books on travel.” However, in the Christmas just past, with “the poignancy of war privations having to some extent become atrophied through time’s healing influence”, there was a demand for “novels with a war-time background.”

Then, the next year, in June 1929, The West Australian had an article titled “Reading Tastes”. Booksellers, it said, were noticing that the public was moving a little away from novels to “general literature”, and particularly to “biographies and works of travel”. They reported three reasons that had been “advanced” for this change, the first being increased advertising for those types of works, and the third being changed pricing policies by publishers in which, reasonably soon after publishing “a substantial work … at a substantial price”, they issued it “at a popular price”. But, the second reason was,

the huge increase, in the size of the reading public following the war. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches, who in prewar days had taken little or no interest in literature, had received books from home, and had read them. What was at first merely a means of relieving the monotony of trench life had developed into a definite taste for reading. The habit contracted in time of war, remained when peace had come, and it was only natural that a considerable proportion of this vastly increased reading public should have an inclination for various kinds of literature besides fiction.

No evidence is provided for this, so it’s impossible to say whether it’s anecdotal from booksellers, or based on some sort of collected data, but there’s probably some truth to it. That said, I did like the fact that some of the reports I read, including some of those above, did use library borrowing data to support their claims …

I’d love to have spent more time exploring Trove, but even retired people seem to be time poor these days!

Hmm…

I initially intended to discuss both the World Wars in this post, but it started to get rather long, so you’ll have to wait until next week’s riveting instalment to find out about readers’ behaviour in World War 2. Were they different? Come back next week to see!

Meanwhile, any thoughts – or anecdotes of your own?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2018 12:31 am

    I’ve certainly been looking for more escapist reading since Nov. 9, 2016 (the American presidential election).

    • August 7, 2018 7:50 am

      Haha Jeanne, great response. I have a good American friend who probably feels the same!

  2. August 7, 2018 4:46 am

    Fascinating post. I never thought much about how reading tastes changed during wartime. However, it makes sense that folks would concentrate more on current events and less towards entertainment. Kudos for differentiating between quotations and opinions that seem to be backed by data and those that might be backed by anecdote.

  3. August 7, 2018 8:33 am

    My father’s father, who served in France was already a reader – I have some of his books from Toowoomba Grammar – so can’t say if the War made a difference. I checked my year Best Reads posts and Australian publishing dropped by about 25% over the course of the War from 45 books/year down to low 30s.

    • August 7, 2018 9:10 am

      Thanks Bill – I guess there were already exceptions.

      Your point about reduced supply – reduced publishing – is one I make in my WW2 post! It’s understandable isn’t it?

  4. August 7, 2018 9:11 am

    I don’t know about the first world war, but in the film & TV I’ve seen set in WW2, the family switches on the radio to listen to broadcasts about the progress of the war. It’s always portrayed as a solemn duty and there’s a sense of relief when they turn it off and go back to jigsaw puzzles, songs around the piano, conversation and yes, reading. If this picture isn’t just an idealised view of ‘the family at war’ then perhaps that accounts for reading as an escape from the horror for a while.

    • August 7, 2018 9:13 am

      I suspect it does Lisa. I’m sure I read somewhere that the rise of musical comedy in Hollywood coincided with WW2. Of course I could check that but no time now.

  5. ian darling permalink
    August 7, 2018 7:31 pm

    Fascinating subject. I remember Orwell’s 1938 novel Coming Up For Air where the hero, George Bowling, remembers reading books (as opposed to comics) for the first time at a supply dump in some obscure corner of the front. He reads with growing discrimination – enjoying Hardy, Conrad and Lawrence along with more popular authors as he has, for the first time, a lot of time on his hands. Fiction – but with a sense that this sort of experience must have been very common.

    • August 7, 2018 7:53 pm

      Thanks Ian … I like Orwell but haven’t read much of him for awhile. I don’t recollect this novel at all so will add it to my list.

      I guess – as most of us know – there’s fiction and there’s fiction, eh?

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