Books and Social Class

A number of surveys have found that upper income people read more books than lower income people. Reading is also tied to educational attainment – the further you get in school, the more likely you will read frequently. Studies also link reading with activities like going to museums, volunteering, going to the theatre, exercising and playing sports – leading one important research study to conclude that reading boosts your income, your education, and your general wellness.

Of course, there’s a problem in that conclusion: these things are correlated, but not causal. There are alternative explanations why those who read also go to museums, volunteer, and exercise.

Reading books is viewed as an activity that will better people. And reading good books makes you better than reading “trash” does. Out of this impulse comes the idea of “the canon,” a list of great books that every educated person should have read – for two reasons. One, they are the very best books, the epitome of western civilization. Two, if everyone read them, we would have a common basis of understanding. Critiques of the canon tend to focus on what is left out – contemporary literature, women writers, writers who are not part of the dominant western tradition. A large part of the world is not included if you think “the canon” is everything. These debates tended to be highly politicized in the 1980s and were sometimes called “the culture wars.”

What is considered “trashy” also changes over time. At the beginning of the 20th century fiction was considered universally inferior to non-fiction. Many public libraries tried to discourage patrons from checking out fiction, or required that for every fiction book checked out, a non-fiction book also be checked out. Reading novels was viewed much the way watching TV is now – as mind-numbing, passive, compulsive, a poor substitute for more improving activities.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, literary critics began to make strong distinctions between books that they considered high quality and those that weren’t. Books that emphasized a regional setting, included adventure, or were written by women were left off the list. Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner – those were authors worth reading. And reading – in these “new critics'” view – should begin and end with the text. The author’s intentions or the emotional response to reading were irrelevant. More recently, other critical approaches have found favor, including “reader response” theory that says readers interact with books and bring their own background and experiences to the text; that, in fact, there is no such thing as a “pure” text that is exactly the same for every reader.

In addition to studying how women read romances, Radway also examined the middle class reader by studying the way Book-of-the-Month-Club titles were chosen and how readers experienced them. This book club was very popular and played a role in shaping culture – somewhat like Oprah’s. Radway found that readers wanted to read books that had high cultural credentials and informational value but also wanted to have a strong emotional tie with the book and its characters. Like the romances read by women in her earlier study, the Book-of-the-Month-Club books simultaneously reinforced social norms and gave readers a chance to explore their own identity.

Later in this course we’ll consider how Oprah’s Book Club has shaped readers’ tastes and how it reflects the kind of reading practices that ordinary readers use – as well as on the commodification of books.

photo courtesy of adwriter.

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