Martyn Lyons, from an essay on “New Readers in the NIneteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers”:

By the 1890s, 90 per cent literacy had been almost uniformly reached [in the Western world], and the old discrepancy between men and women had disappeared. This was the ‘golden age’ of the book in the West: the first generation which acceded to mass literacy was also the last to see the book unchallenged as a communications medium, by either the radio or the electronic media of the twentieth century.
(In this collection.) Lyons probably shouldn’t say it was the golden age of the book, but rather of print, but this is still a rather stunningly provocative observation. I find myself wondering how the cultural history of the West would have been different had print reigned for another century before radio, movies, and TV emerged.
UPDATE: I wonder if this history — a brief period in which print is nearly universal and culturally dominant — could help to account for the bookishness of many Modernist writers. The reading of the great Romantic and Victorian writers is rarely overtly present in their works, it seems to me, while the writings of Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and even Woolf seem by contrast very scholarly, and full of references to books and reading. Just a thought, but there may be something to it.

Text Patterns

October 7, 2010


  1. Although, the impact of electronic media had already begun with the telegraph by this time. Actually, the telegraph's prominence had probably peaked by the 1890s. The Newspapers, probably, felt the most direct effects, and by extension, the people reading them.

  2. Good point! But I'm inclined to say that the telegraph had little or no impact on people's entertainment or leisure time, and that's where radio/movies/tv came to eat into reading's market share.

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