Why, How and What to Read. The British Left and its reading protocols in the first half of the twentieth century - Université Paris 8 Vincennes - Saint-Denis Access content directly
Conference Papers Year : 2022

Why, How and What to Read. The British Left and its reading protocols in the first half of the twentieth century

Elen Cocaign

Abstract

In the first half of the twentieth century, while it was ideologically divided, the British Left shared a confidence in the ability of the written and printed word to emancipate and politicise the newly enfranchised working-class. Schooling had become compulsory, censorship was limited and left-leaning publishers experimented with new formats and innovative bookselling practices such as book clubs. Political books and prints thus became cheaper and more accessible. In this context, left-wing parties and political organisations became worried about the way texts would be received and understood. Many of the prospective readers faced very concrete difficulties – their literacy was often nominal and their working and living conditions could prove incompatible with “serious reading” and “heavy books”. In 1931, the National Council of Labour Colleges published a booklet titled Why, How and What to Read, which perfectly exemplifies political activists’ eagerness to encourage and guide working-class readers. The reading protocols they designed were usually based on what Roger Chartier termed “intensive reading”, an attentive and repetitive reading of texts deemed canonical. While individual reading was presented as essential, study groups and summer schools were also organised to foster collective reading practices and, in some cases, an orthodox interpretation of texts. This paper is based on publications and archival evidence which show how left-wing reading protocols were conceived and received. While they were aimed to maximise the power of political texts, these attempts to frame the reading experience of working-class readers also had a normative and at times coercive effect, negating a longstanding autodidactic tradition. They reveal the incomprehension of left-wing intellectuals for the realities of working-class life, which goes a long way to explain the limited impact of their book-centred strategies.

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hal-04064669 , version 1 (11-04-2023)

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  • HAL Id : hal-04064669 , version 1

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Elen Cocaign. Why, How and What to Read. The British Left and its reading protocols in the first half of the twentieth century. SHARP 2022 - The power of the written word, Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing, Jul 2022, Amsterdam (Hollande), Netherlands. ⟨hal-04064669⟩
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