Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian Common Reader

The Australian Common Reader is, says its website, “a world-leading database of digitised reading records” which “contains thousands of records of library borrowers between 1860 and 1918.” Initiated by Western Australia’s Curtin University professor Tim Dolin in 2008*, it was acquired by ANU in 2013, and is managed by its Centre for Digital Humanities Research. It was officially launched two weeks ago on June 18 – a fact which was brought to my attention by Bill (The Australian Legend.) Thanks Bill.

The libraries whose circulation records are in the database include:

  • Collie Mechanics’ Institute (WA)
  • Lambton Mechanics’ and Miners’ Institute (Newcastle, NSW)
  • Maitland Institute (Yorke Peninsula, SA)
  • Port Germein Institute (regional SA)
  • Rosedale Mechanics’ Institute (Gippsland, Vic)
  • South Australian Institute (Adelaide, SA)

These are all, I understand, mechanics’ institutes (about which I’ve written before), and are mostly located in mining towns and farming communities. Although these institutes were set up to support worker education and recreation, members of the public could also join.

The database is publicly accessible, making it a rich resource, surely, for all sorts of researchers. Certainly, Dr Julieanne Lamond, who manages the project, argues that we are lucky to have it.

The database has been designed, she says, to facilitate researchers sifting through pages of records to create a picture of Australia’s borrowing and literary history. You can search the database on:

  • Borrower occupation
  • Borrower gender
  • Book title
  • Book author
  • Borrower name

This means, Lamond said, that “you can see what the local doctor or politicians were reading, what books and authors were popular, and a library’s most prolific borrowers”. As a result “we can see that doctors were borrowing more books than solicitors and butchers were reading more than engineers.” (Hmm … I’m feeling quite glad that I’m not a big library user right now! Seriously though, this is pretty fascinating.)

Charles Dicken, c1860

Dickens, c. 1860 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Stephanie Convery, writing for The Guardian Weekly, reported on the launch and says that the records tell us, for example, that:

Australian butchers in the 19th century preferred to read thrillers, miners loved novels about horse racing, while the most popular author among doctors – and the Adelaide working class in 1861 – was Charles Dickens.

Lamond points out that the records include Mathew Charlton, one of the earliest leaders of the Australian Labor Party. He was, she says, “quite an avid reader, making a total of 264 loans over a 10-year period” and “his favourite author appears to have been Edward Phillips Oppenheim, an English novelist known for writing thrillers.” Oppenheim is, in fact, the second most borrowed author in the database.

She said that the website shows Australians were diverse in their reading habits. They read Dickens, for example, but they also read the latest magazines. They read Australian fiction, as well as overseas authors. And, probably just like now, some were avid readers, while others would “borrow the same book over and over again.”

The records show that male borrowers far exceeded women, but Lamond argues that this is probably due to the sorts of libraries they were. Interestingly, she says, the data “shows that men and women read very widely across all these kinds of genres that now we think of as being quite gendered.”

Nonetheless, the data does show some different favourites. The most popular book for women was On the wings of the wind by Welsh author Anne Adaliza Puddicombe who used the male pen name of Allen Raine. She was one of the bestselling authors of the time, apparently. Woo hoo, though, women reading women! In fact, their research shows that four of the top five works borrowed by women were written by women!

By contrast, the most popular reading for men was a weekly magazine – Household Words which was edited by Charles Dickens (and about which I have also written before.) It was specifically aimed, as I quoted in my post, at “the masses” and it intended to both entertain and “shape discussion and debate on the important social questions of the time”. I love discovering that it was, indeed, popular among the people it was created for.

Overall, Lamond, quoted by Convery, says that

“People’s reading was very diverse, much more diverse than I think most of our reading is now. These people just read incredibly widely. They were reading sporting novels and political thrillers, they were reading George Eliot and Jane Austen at the same time.”

(Hmm, is she basing this comparison regarding diversity today on any evidence? Anecdotally, and defending my era, I’d say there’s a lot of diversity in today’s reading today!)

Convey makes a few other observations, including that:

  • miners were the most abundant profession represented in the data, making up nearly 13%, with the most prolific borrower being a South Australian miner named John Pellew, who borrowed 877 books from the Port Germein Institute.
  • fiction was, overall, more borrowed than non-fiction.
  • the most popularly borrowed author was Cornish Christian novelist Joseph Hocking, reflecting, perhaps the preponderance of Cornish and Welsh miners in the borrowing communities.

Lamond hopes to obtain funding to digitise more records to broaden our insight into reading habits of the past. She notes that they don’t have good data about metropolitan reading, and that these records are not really in existence:

“The stars have to align for these kinds of records to survive because often they were run by volunteer management committees, and they sat in boxes in people’s attics; they threw them out; they burnt down – a lot of historical library records have gone up in smoke, literally.”

Don’t you hate hearing about the destruction of records?

A little example

Anyhow, of course, I had to have a little play in the database myself, so I looked at the Borrower by Occupation. They are listed in order of quantity, starting with Miners (5,666 borrowings) and ending with six occupations represented by 1 borrowing, including “Authoress” and “Tea merchant”. However, it looks like the occupations were entered “free text” and that the ANU has not tried to concatenate them in any way, so, for example, there are State School Teachers, School Teachers and School Masters (and maybe even more permutations).

Using the “visualisation” option, I found state school teacher, Frances Cairns, who borrowed 326 books, of which 318 were fiction. The author she borrowed most was Scottish author and minister, George MacDonald, but I was delighted to see that she also borrowed a book by the cheeky Australian author Elizabeth von Arnim. One of the eight non-fiction works she borrowed was Daniel Crawford’s Thinking black, which, says Wikipedia, “was recommended reading for those Europeans who wanted to work in partnership with, rather than over, Africans.” I wonder what was behind this? The visualisation option was fun, but probably more useful is the fact that you can also download spreadsheets of your searches to do further analysis.

And here I will close on this fascinating project, but do have a play if you are interested,

* Another report says that the database commenced in 2001! Who knows? Maybe both are right, and it’s a matter of defining “start”?

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?

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

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.”


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!


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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Literary culture in colonial Australia

National Library of Australia

National Library of Australia, from the other side of Lake Burley Griffin

Bill of The Australian Legend’s AWW Gen 1 Week, which has just finished, focused on the authors and the books they wrote about colonial Australia. However, what about the readers? I’ve been planning to write a post on literary culture in colonial Australia for some time, and today seems to be just the right time! My post draws heavily on retired academic Elizabeth Webby’s 2011 John Alexander Ferguson Memorial Lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia” which was published in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (vol. 97, pt. 2) in December 2011 (available online). Webby starts by recognising the work done by lawyer-book collector-bibliographer Ferguson whose much-researched collection is at the National Library of Australia and who is commemorated there by the Ferguson Room.

It’s a fascinating lecture, for the content and for the discussion of the information sources Webby used to discover who read what in colonial Australia (1788 to 1901). (I’m always interested in the research process.) There are letters, of course, from colonists back to home, asking for books. Then there are advertisements listing personal libraries for sale. Early explorer George Bass’s library for example contained mostly books on medicine, science, law, theology plus classical authors like Horace, Virgil and Homer. A library typical of “gentlemen’s libraries of the period”. It contained very little fiction.

Another explorer, a couple of decades later, was John Oxley. His library was sold in 1828, and, Webby writes, it

displayed a decidedly stronger taste for fiction, indicating the shift towards novels as the main form of recreational reading which began in this period, although still deplored by many. When John Oxley’s library was sold by auction in Sydney in August 1828 about half of the 330 or so lots listed in the catalogue were works of fiction. They included such recent publications as Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of the Crusaders (1825), the American novelist Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827), as well as Gothic thrillers like Anne Radcliffe’s Gaston de Blondeville (1826) and Mary Shelley’s early science fiction tale Last Man (1826). Oxley clearly was a regular purchaser of the latest English books.

Later in the article, discussing attitudes to women readers, she refers to the sale of “a lady’s library” in 1833. While she didn’t see a list, it was described as comprising ‘upwards of six hundred volumes, chiefly standard Works, by the most esteemed ancient and modern authors, forming altogether a collection of English Literature rarely to be met with out of Europe'”. She uses this to counter the belief that women only read fiction!

Another fascinating source of information about what people were reading are advertisements for missing books. Fascinating. Besides providing information about what people had in their libraries, they also tell us how precious books were. In some of the ads she found, people threatened legal action or offered rewards. So, of course, I went to Trove to see what I could find. I found some of those Webby describes, but I also found one from June 1830 that seemed to be about recalling books that had been lent out and were now needed back for an estate auction. The list is fairly long, and looks like one of those aforesaid typical “gentlemen’s collections”. It has classics, sermons, theological works, essays, dictionaries and so on, but very little fiction, except for Sir Walter Scott, who’ll appear again later! The list ends with the statement that “The Public are also informed, that this extensive and valuable Library will in a short time be sold by Public Auction, of which due notice will be given. As Mr. HOWE’S Library is well known, it would be useless to make further comments at this time.” Clearly they expected the books to be returned, but I wonder what sort of comments it was useless to make?

Webby also explores lending libraries. They varied greatly. Some were set up by churches, and focused on morality and religion, with “frivolous” or “pernicious” publications being excluded. Some were created for “the colonial elite”, such as the Hobart Town Book Society and Sydney’s Australian Subscription Library. And some were set up to provide reading matter for working people. These were the Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Arts whose buildings are still familiar sights in Australian country towns. The short-lived Hobart Town Mechanics Institute was founded in 1827, and Sydney had established its Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts in 1833. By 1834, it had “upwards of five hundred volumes … consisting of works on science, history and general literature, chiefly contributed by the liberal donations and loans of members and friends.” Indeed, Webby makes several references to people being asked to donate books from their own libraries to, for example, make them available to “the enquiring mechanic, who can find time to dive into their contents.” In truth, though, mechanics did not comprise the main memberships of these organisations.

And here is a good point to discuss what Webby calls the fiction debate. Those of you interested in the history of reading will know that novels were disparaged for a long time. I’ve written before about Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey, in which she described them as works

in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language.

Northanger Abbey was published in 1817 so Austen’s defence is contemporaneous with the period we are discussing. Webby quotes James Ross, editor of the Hobart Town Courier, as supporting novel-reading in 1831. He defended the so-called “frivolous” reading tastes of members, arguing that recreational reading was valid after the “toil of a long day in some official, public or private arduous operation.” He also argued that reading English novels was, as Webby puts it, “almost a patriotic duty”, because these books

keep alive in no small degree that amor patriae, that attachment to our mother country and that familiarity with the manners and relish for the habits of our countrymen which is at all times so desirable.

Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe, first published 1819.

Webby identifies some of the fiction that was being read – including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Bulwer Lytton – but the author who pops up most frequently in her survey of the early to mid-nineteenth century is Sir Walter Scott. The first book order from the 1826-established Australian Subscription Library, for example, included only one novelist, Scott.

And the 1836 report of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts defended the inclusion of novels in its library, with the argument, you’ll see, that is still used to defend, for example, the reading of comics. The report says:

… it ought to be remembered, that a taste for reading has to be formed before works of a more philosophical character will be relished or appreciated, and that if any book is likely to accomplish this more speedily than another, it is the works of Scott–containing, as they do, a vast fund of historical information, mixed up, in an agreeable shape, with the manners and customs of different periods.

Webby discusses much more, including the role of periodicals and newspapers in reading culture. She also writes about “reading aloud”, but I might save that for another post.

It’s clear from Webby’s lecture that the information available was scattered and incomplete. She praises Evandale Subscription Library in Tasmania which “stands out for the completeness of its records”. Please note this any of you who are currently involved in organisations, such as reading groups: keep your records! One day, some researcher will want them!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (2)

My last Monday Musings post was on Changing literary tastes from the 1920s to 1940s, using newspaper articles I’d found in the National Library of Australia’s Trove. Today’s post draws on just one article from the 1950s. I’m choosing just one because it, unusually in my experience, has a by-line – for a person worth introducing – and because the article is so delightful.

Leon Gellert, 1920s, by May Moore (Presumed public domain,, via Wikipedia)

So, the by-line. It is Leon Gellert (1892-1977), but I can’t resist telling you that when I first heard his name all I could think of was a tragic epic poem I read as a child about the dog Gelert (sometimes Gellert). Being a dog lover, that tale of a faithful dog has dogged me (sorry!) so powerfully ever since that whenever I heard the name Leon Gellert I couldn’t get past the dog – until now.

Why now? Because the article I found in Trove titled “The decline of the bookcase” was so entertaining that I decided to shake off my childish memory and check the man out. I found him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Biographer Gavin Souter describes him as “soldier, poet and journalist”. Gellert was born in South Australia, and taught briefly before he enlisted with the AIF. He ended up at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, was injured, and repatriated home in 1916 after which he returned to teaching. He wrote poetry during and after the war. Souter describes him as “Australia’s closest approximation to a Brooke or Sassoon”. His short, powerful poem, “The jester in the trench”, appears in Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian poems you need to know.

According to Souter his early promise was not sustained and he turned to journalism. In 1942 he became The Sydney Morning Herald‘s literary editor “and wrote a graceful column, ‘Something Personal’, for the Saturday book pages”. The article I found is one of these, so let’s look at it.

Published on 16 June 1951, it captured my attention because it starts off talking about bookcases, and what reader isn’t interested in them! He starts

RECENTLY I roamed the city in search of some ready-made bookshelves. It was an almost fruitless search. The few that came within the bounds of my requirements were pitifully stunted little things obviously designed by craftsmen who had never read a book in their lives. The top-most compartment reached no higher than a man’s waist and the lowest could be approached only by crawling on all fours.

I was confident I would enjoy reading this. He then talks about

glass-fronted book-cupboards; ungainly remnants from late Victorian days now raised to the peerage with the dubious rank of “antique.” These, doubtless, once held their stern leather-bound arrays of Scott and Thackeray and Carlyle, close-corseted in the gloom against casual and curious hands. But they were too prohibitive in price for my pocket and too full of shadows for my purpose. There is so much unlatching and probing to be undertaken that the extraction of a volume is like an obstetrical operation.

Hmm, we Gums rather like glass-fronted bookcases because of the dust factor – but we only have a couple (recently inherited), and he is right about the “unlatching and probing”. He continues in a similarly entertaining vein, pronouncing his preference for bookcases “of open countenance that smile their invitation across the whole length of a room.” This is the type we mostly have – floor to (nearly) ceiling, most double-stacked. Very convenient, but pretty dusty too! What are your favourite types of bookcases?

He progresses from describing various bookcases to discussing their dearth in contemporary homes. He says where once they had a place in every small home, now they are viewed with suspicion:

How often have I admitted a guest to hear him exclaim, with a tincture of mistrust, as he crossed the threshold for the first time, “Ah, I see you are a reader,” and that mark you, with no more evidence to guide him than a meagre rack of books in what is referred to with sweeping hyperbole, as the entrance hall!

Hands up if, like Gellert and us, your first of many bookcases is in your entrance “hall”.

And then he gets on to WHAT people are reading …

He says that in the past people all read the same sort of material – a wide mix encompassing the likes of Henry James, H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Eden Phillpots and Stanley Weyman (who was also known, says Wikipedia, as “the Prince of Romance”). “Those beyond the pale”, he writes, “read Mr. Garvice“. I had to look him up too! He was a very popular writer of romance in the early twentieth century.

However, now, he says, readers are dividing into two groups, “those who read, let us say, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene and Joyce Cary, and the vast mass who read what I believe are called ‘Westerners’.” What’s more, he suggests, these groups are contemptuous of each other. This is interesting. Is he right that this divide, one that still largely exists today, only started around the 1950s?

Anyhow, then, having mentioned “westerners”, which, according to the writers in my first post, were their way out, he moves on to detective novels. He wonders if they are the cause of the impermanence he’s identified. The detective fiction craze has been going for forty years he says. When will it stop? One of their attractions, he thinks, is that they are a game that can be played in private, like patience, and they have “something in common with the crossword puzzle”. He quite likes detective novels himself, but is concerned that, having lasted more than thirty years – his marker for “the most obstinate vogue in history” –  detective fiction will “establish itself as a durable department of literature.”

He trots out, too, a concern about what it means to love detective fiction. We deride melodrama, he says, but “the most outrageous complexity of treachery, murder, torture and rape is regarded, by the intellectual and the illiterate, as legitimate fun”. Is it really the harmless game people think, he asks? He then tells us that detective fiction is popular with world leaders. Hitler loved them, as do “the most distinguished statesmen in the English-speaking” world and “the most scholarly writers and the most immaculate ministers of religion”. They all “squander countless hours in company with M. Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsy”. And yet, he says, when people worry about child delinquency, it’s cinema and radio they blame!

He concludes by wondering whether the time could come when detective fiction is banned. He doesn’t really want to see that, but at least it could “help to reestablish our pride in the permanent companionship of good books”.

We now know that detective fiction has indeed become “a durable department of literature”, but I’d argue that we have also reestablished our “pride in the permanent companionship of good books” (if he was right that it had been lost). Putting aside for a moment economic issues, the interesting question here is how important to literary culture is “the permanent companionship of good books” – meaning ownership and storage in personal bookcases – versus the fact that people are reading (as he says people were in his time).

Monday musings on Australian literature: Changing literary tastes (1)

Research can send you off on all sorts of tangents – particularly if don’t have to be focused. What fascinating things you can find when you go with the flow (in the wonderful Trove)! It started with my recent post on Currawong Press, which, somewhat serendipitously, led to a post on books published in The Australian Women’s Weekly. It also led to this one on literary (or reading) tastes in 1920s to 1940s Australia, through an article published in the Sun in 1947 which mentioned the strange fact that some books by Currawong Press on taxation had become best-sellers almost overnight, but it said a lot more too …

Georgette Heyer Regency BuckHowever, let me introduce the topic. That Sun article set me off on a trail which uncovered several articles discussing the public’s literary tastes, and how and why the “experts” thought they were changing. The experts were mostly librarians and booksellers. In 1929, The Sydney Morning Herald asked the large circulating libraries whether they’d seen changes from the previous year’s borrowing. Yes, said the librarians. They noted:

  • a changing of the guard in popular authors, but since none of the names – except one – are familiar to me, I won’t detail them. The one I did recognise was identified as “rapidly approaching the status of best-sellers”, Georgina Heyer! Well, I sort of recognised her, as presumably they meant Georgette Heyer. Her books would have been gaining traction around then, and I can’t find a Georgina.
  • a decline in the “sex-novel”, and also in plays. “Once upon a time every play published by Pinero and other popular dramatists sold almost as well as a novel”. How interesting.
  • increased interest in detective and mystery stories, and historical novels
  • increased interest in short story collections. Woo hoo! They write that “a very few years ago publishers hesitated to bring out volumes of short stories. That is all changed now.” Is an increased interest happening again now do you think?
  • increased sales of “standard works” (in “pocket editions”). They were “selling so amazingly well that there is almost evidence enough to show that the general public is being weaned from the frothier varieties of books”

What a fascinating insight into reading habits. I have no idea how “scientific” these observations were, but librarians are very trustworthy people, you know!

The Sunday Mail in 1932 explored changing tastes in detective fiction, arguing that “the reader of to-day wants to pit his brains against those of the detective, and so the mystery novel is assuming more and more the aspect of a mental problem”. When asked, Brisbane booksellers and librarians:

emphasised that there are “thrillers” and “thrillers,” detective stories and detective stories. The popularity of the detective thriller of the Edgar Wallace type, it was explained, was on the decline even before the death of that undoubted master, but not so the intellectual “thriller.”

They describe in some detail what makes an “intellectual thriller”.

The article also mentions increased interest in Australian books, and notes the surprising popularity of Swedish physician Axel Munthe’s The story of San Michele. It apparently “emerged from obscurity into something like the status of a best seller, all because a few people allowed themselves the pleasure of reading it ‘on chance’.” The booksellers said that bestsellers of “today are 100 per cent superior in literary merit to the bestsellers of five and six years ago”. This was the Depression era … I wonder what impact that had on reading tastes.

This idea of improved public taste was repeated in 1933 in an article in the Horsham Times which reported a statement by visiting English publisher John Lane, from Bodley Head. He said

there had been an improvement in the literary taste of the reading public throughout the world, and the demand among the great body of the public to-day was for clean healthy stories and plain dirt had little sale.

I’m not sure that “clean healthy stories” are guaranteed to be “literary”, but probably “plain dirt” isn’t? Lane suggests that “cheap lending libraries [presumably in England] were responsible for changing the literary tastes of readers in the industrial classes from the penny story magazine to volumes, and would eventually raise the literary standard of the masses”. Oh dear, this sounds a bit snooty, but I do like his belief that libraries were helping widen people’s reading tastes.

Now we jump t0 1937, with the Depression on its way out, and an article in Melbourne’s Argus titled “Novels are less popular”. It says that demand was changing, with “tastes more serious”. This came from Melbourne librarians who said that the borrowing of novels had decreased from 75% of their loans to 65%. Prahran Library chief librarian gave a reason for this:

The uncertainty of the international situation in Europe, he said, was resulting in many former readers of fiction asking for such books as Gunthe’s “Inside Europe,” and other works on economics and politics. The depression had made borrowers’ tastes more serious, and there was a growing demand for books on the trades and useful arts.

Interesting eh? Sometimes we hear that in hard times people turn to lighter fare, but apparently not always. Except, the report continues:

The [unnamed] chief librarian at a large city library said that with the return of more prosperous times many persons who had been forced to read during the depression were now finding their relaxation and amusement at the cinema. There had been a large decline in the borrowing of low grade fiction.

Hmm, there’s that “low grade fiction” again. And “forced to read during the depression” suggests that reading was not the entertainment of choice then (as that reader survey says it is in contemporary Australia)? The article quotes the librarian of the Borough of St Pancreas London as also attributing “the decline in the popularity of the novel to the appeal of wireless and cinemas”.

Anyhow, now we come to the 1947 article in Sydney’s Sun which inspired this post. Titled “Tastes in books were changing”, it looks at bookbuying in the lead up to that year’s Christmas.  It opens by stating that “book-buying boom, which began in the war years, is being maintained in the peace”. Booksellers said that:

  • War books were generally “out”, with some exceptions. However, publishers felt that war books would return just as the publication of All Quiet On the Western Front had generated renewed interest in World War 1
  • “Thrillers” were also declining, and “the sale of Westerns was negligible”
  • Australian books were popular, with most booksellers “displaying Australian books on special counters” (something we discussed recently). One firm reported that the sale of Australian books had doubled in recent years: the “First edition of Flying Doctor Calling, by Ernestine Hill (Angus and Robertson), sold out in a week. An Australian classic that keeps on selling and selling is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, by Henry Handel Richardson.”
  • Long historical novels were in “big demand”
  • Books about Australia and other countries were very popular. A bookseller suggested that “The quiz craze may have something to do with this thirst for knowledge among Australians”. (Love the quiz craze!)
  • European migrants were keen book buyers, buying “expensive books on politics, art, music
  • Children’s books were selling well, perhaps partly due to “the high price of toys”

The article also discussed the increasing cost of books, but said people were paying the high prices “without demur”. It also noted that “unfortunately for Australian authors the boom in Australian books” had coincided with “unprecedented publishing difficulties”, which they describe in some detail. The situation was so bad that “Some local publishers are more than a year behind in their programmes and there isn’t much likelihood of catching up for a long time to come. Dozens of accepted Australian manuscripts are awaiting publication.” Poor writers.

Through these articles, there’s an ongoing thread of concern about “literary quality”. Do we see this same earnestness about whether people are reading “quality” in book reporting today? Or, are we more tolerant of diverse reading interests?