Monday musings on Australian literature: War-time reading tastes, World War 2

Continuing last week’s brief survey of war-time reading habits…

World War 2

And then we come to the Second World War. Here’s The West Australian again, this time in July 1940, less than a year after the war had started (a bit like our 1915 World War 1 report last week.) The article is headed, “Light Reading Popular. Perth’s Wartime Tastes.” It says that:

Wartime readers prefer light humour and detective novels to political works or discussions of international affairs. This was the verdict of a Perth book-seller and librarian when asked whether the public reading taste had changed since the beginning of the war. For a long time before the war, it was stated, books on international affairs were first favourites but this was no longer so. There had been a remarkable increase among library subscribers in the demand for detective fiction.

PG Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Dreamtime

And yet, it continues, “the unexpurgated edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (royalties in which go to the Red Cross) had sold well.” Did you know that about the royalties? Anyhow, it goes on to say that booksellers in the east of the country report similar interests, with A. P. Herbert’s General cargo and P. G. Wodehouse’s Uncle Fred in the springtime being best sellers, and “historical novels and light travel books dealing with countries outside the political maelstrom” also selling well.

Another July 1940 newspaper report on wartime reading tastes comes from Launceston’s Examiner. It starts by saying that people are sick of reading about Hitler, and that one male library visitor pronounced that “All he wanted to read about Hitler now was his obituary!”

The article says that most of the Launceston public library’s users “demand ‘light’ reading” but that “that does not necessarily mean fiction.” People are also interested in “non-fiction that is easy to read, such as short autobiographies and travel”, particularly for “travel books descriptive of countries affected by the war” (which counteracts somewhat the Perth report above about travel book preferences.) As for autobiographies, it says that “those about Royalty of any country are always widely read.” Interesting!

The article says that

most readers say that with the war over-shadowing most things, they seek books that will be purely a distraction from serious thoughts, necessitating the least possible concentration. For that reason, fiction is in greater demand than ever and detective stories the most popular of all the many classes of literature handled at the library to meet varied tastes.

Douglas Reed, Insanity FairThere is an exception to the disinclination for “the ‘heavier’ political type of book” – Douglas Reed’s Insanity fair. It “is still one of the most sought books of all types. There is always a waiting list for it.” I had not heard of him or it, but Wikipedia says that “Insanity Fair (1938) was one of the most influential in publicising the state of Europe and the megalomania of Adolf Hitler before the Second World War.” (You can download it for free from Another exception, this time for books “avoided because of great length”, is Gone with the wind. Since being published in 1937, it apparently “has never rested on the library shelves.”

Also in July 1940 – were these journalists feeding off each other? – was an article in Melbourne’s The Age titled “Reading in wartime. Escape Books”, with the by-line Investigator. It’s a long article – around 1000 words. It poses a number of questions: have tastes changed; should in fact people be reading at all given the “mighty effort” being undertaken “to overcome the foe”; and, if people do continue to read “what kind of books do wise and well-balanced minds recommend to thoughtful Australians?” Don’t you love the idea of “wise and well-balanced minds”?

The article then briefly mentions the challenges faced by readers, including the reduced output from publishers, irregular supply, and “the natural indisposition to spend money on expensive books.” However, Investigator says, “literate homo sapiens must be intellectually fed.” Indeed, s/he quotes Poet Laureate John Masefield, who advised that

While we must, of necessity, be deeply interested in all that is written and broadcast concerning the war, let us keep reading some quiet book to steady our minds. In other words, to preserve our poise, our cheerfulness and sanity, have on hand some quiet, absorbingly interesting book, divorced from politics, warfare, national culture and Ideologies, east or west.

Francis Brett Young, Pilgrim's restWith this advice in mind, Investigator then gives a suggested reading list from “one experimenter.” It comprises “literature of release, diversion and escape from which the experimenter had derived real refreshment since the war began to press heavily upon heart and mind.” The list is diverse, but includes:

  • Such is life, by Tom Collins (aka Joseph Furphy), the new edition with an introduction by Vance Palmer.
  • On the Barrier Reef, by S. Elliott Napier: seems like a non-fiction book about the Barrier Reef. Napier was a banker, solicitor, journalist, and author, among other things.
  • Two of J. B. Priestley’s and Angela Thirkell’s latest novels.
  • Pastoral Symphony, by Aldyth Williams: a gentle memoir, I’m guessing, given its subtitle is “a recollection of country life”.
  • Pilgrim’s rest, by Francis Brett Young: described in GoodReads as “tale of gold lust, gentle romance and the violent industrial unrest which shook the Rand in 1913.” Clearly escapist.

Our “experimenter” also lists books of essays and sketches (one described as containing “pleasant writings”), books of Australian verse, some biographies, and “the three last numbers of the Cornhill Magazine — killed by the war in December, 1939, after 80 years of placid life.” Oh dear, poor Cornhill!

Investigator goes on to say that this list may not represent Australian readers overall, because the “experimenter” has “a sensitive mind, needing release from mental strain”. In fact, Investigator says, data from two different libraries in Melbourne shows that there is “no marked swing in the direction of the literature of escape.”

Nearly two years later, however, in February 1942, Adelaide’s The mail has an article titled “Reading tastes change under war conditions”. This article too quotes a librarian’s experience, Mr CM Reid of the Adelaide Circulating Library. He says that in times of peace Adelaide readers “prefer well reviewed novels, books on current affairs, and a moderate ration of ‘thrillers'”, but that

War time, however, brings a revival of interest in spiritualism, and all kinds of books on mediumism which have never been taken down for years, except to be dusted, are asked for at the counters.

He also notes “a much greater interest in Biblical prophecy since the war began.” The writer suggests that this interest in prophecy, astrology and the occult, “seemed to indicate that some people’s minds were troubled and confused, and that they were seeking comfort rather than information.”

These readers, though, are apparently not “the more serious readers” who, Mr Reid says,

seem to be reading both better books and lighter books since war began. On the one hand they are anxious to be well informed, and all good new books on world affairs and on other countries are sought after; but the same subscribers are also reading many more thrillers, as if for relaxation and escape from world problems.’

And finally, from Ipswich’s Queensland Times in January 1943 comes a report on “people’s tastes” from a librarian. He (it is a he) said that

reading was definitely on the increase in Ipswich, and in addition there was an increase in the demand for the better class of books. More than ever inquiries were for good travel books, biographies, and the historical novel, while anything on sociology and international affairs also was readily taken.

He did admit, though, that “the demand for light fiction remained keen.”

However, supplying this increased interest in reading was a challenge because the war was affecting the output and availability of books. Normally, he would add around 250 new books a month to his library, he said, but he was now lucky to “obtain 40 to 50”, most of which came “from abroad.”

So there we have it, a view of what Australians were reading during World War 2 – from Perth across to Adelaide, then down to Launceston, back over the seas to Melbourne and finally up to Ipswich.

Did anything interest or surprise you?

7 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: War-time reading tastes, World War 2

  1. The Such is Life which is recommended is the version which the Palmers abridged and which was published in about 1937. Interestingly A&R finally published a full version in 1944, so despite wartime shortages.

  2. This is fascinating stuff. The changing reading tastes during wartime is a subject worthy of study. Based on some of the books listed, it is so interesting how many popular books are quickly forgotten in the future. Though lots of people I know collect books, so few people pass them from generation to generation. If folks did this s more commonly, perhaps books would not be so readily forgotten.

    • Thanks Brian. Yes, one of the things that fascinates me in all this is the books that come and those that then go while others stay. I feel that we can never really second guess which books will be in which category.

      • My impression of UK reading tastes in the war from what I’ve read are that books were more popular as antidotes both to boredom and the barbarity of the conflict. These were heroic days for Penguin paperbacks and there were vogues for Jane Austen and Trollope. With the typical philistinity of governments books were allocated a derisory amount of paper with the result that a lot of books were difficult to obtain (bombing raids did not help much either!)

        • Thanks Ian … sounds like the situation was roughly similar in the UK to here, which is probably not surprising. I hadn’t really been aware of the paper issue, until I read these articles, but clearly it played a significant role for publishers and readers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s