Happy New Year everyone. Over the holidays I have had chance to catch up on my reading, a pastime that most of us now take for granted. This was not always the case however. During the Seventeenth century only a few people could read and books were both extremely expensive and thin on choice. A licence was needed in order to run a press and punishment for printing without one was hanging!
Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan (1678) became very popular and remains one of the world's most read books.
In 1688 King James II was deposed by William of Orange, the ruling monarch now not ruling absolutely but by consent of Parliament. This led to a new, modern, free-thinking country and also to a lapse in the Licencing Act which meant that booksellers could now introduce new works without fear and thus began the introduction of newspapers, magazines and works for entertainment. The Daily Courant was first published on March 11th 1702.
Discerning readers met at local coffee houses and gentlemen's debates became fashionable as was to own a smart library. Appearance became all important. Every village had a book binder, book covers could be personalised. To be portrayed in a painting with a book showed that you were very important. One of these collectors, William Beckford, built an ivory tower high above his house in order to keep his 11,000 books.
Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 - the Oxford English would not be available for another 100 years.
The British Library publishes more new titles than anyone else in the worls - there are 150 million books, 400 miles of shelving. In the Kings Library (George III) there are 65,000 books including maps, architecture, and drama - he even had his own bindery. Only the curators can enter this part of the library.
However, even though the Eighteenth century was an Age of Enlightenment, reading was still only available to the upper classes. Reading was seen in the lower classes as being unnecessary and was looked on by the rich as a skill that might give those below stairs ideas above their station. However public readings did become popular, Blue Coat/charity schools were introduced - Christ's Hospital in Sussex was one of these and is still fulfilling it's role today.
The demand came for cheaper books and travelling salesmen carried short stories, ballads and newspapers. The first circulating library was invented in Edinburgh by Alan Ramsey and by 1740's most towns had their own library. Women began reading more and they had access to all the talking points that had been purely male-dominated. Elizabeth Montague founded a salon to discuss books and this helped to establish women as both writers and intellectuals.