The Common Reader

Rosalind Crone introduces a database of readers and reading habits since 1450.

‘Do the customers at publishing houses, the members of book-clubs and circulating libraries, and the purchasers and borrowers of newspapers and reviews, compose altogether the great bulk of the reading public of England?’

In 1858, the novelist Wilkie Collins began an article, ‘The Unknown Public’, he had written for Charles Dickens’s Household Words with this question. It continues to plague those who study the history of reading, and most would agree with the answer Collins himself gave: ‘So far from composing the bulk of English readers, the public mentioned represents nothing more than the minority.’ But a further puzzle remains – where is this hidden majority to be found?

Collins found evidence of their existence in the many penny journals that were sold in tobacconists, small stationers, oyster-shops and fruit-shops the length of the country. Containing a mixture of serial fiction and instructive articles, they were kept for consultation in kitchen drawers, in the back parlours of easy-shaving shops, and in boxes at small chop-houses. Collins described the contents of five sample journals to his largely oblivious bourgeois audience, claiming (through conservative estimates based on their circulation rates) that their combined readership totalled around three million.

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