3rd September 1939

Yesterday was the anniversary of France, the UK, Australia and New Zealand declaring war on Germany and the beginning of World War Two.

I’ve been looking back at what British people were getting up to during this period, and in particular what and how much they were reading.

Seeing what people were reading and how people thought about reading and books at different points in history is always strangely illuminating.

It often indicates a lot about how people were feeling, prevailing national moods, changing atitudes, even changing economics.

In fact, in areas of the country deemed most at risk or most in danger from German bombing, reading almost halved during September and October 1939.

According to publishers and lending libraries, people just stopped buying and borrowing books.

There’s a lot of possible reasons for this, namely, that the prospect of evacuation from the big cities meant that there were either not many readers around or that people did not want to take books with them for various practical reasons.

But it’s unlikely this would have led to the sort of reductions in borrowing and buying that were being reported.

It’s possible that people were too scared to read,  or too busy buying blackout curtain and collecting gasmasks or, for some reason, felt that reading was pointless in the face of total war.

In London, lending libraries reported a 44% drop compared to July of the same year.

In Birmingham this was 26%.

The writer and publisher John Lehmann wrote that ‘the bookshops were empty, and publishers cancelled their plans or postponed them indefinitely, except for those with books already going through the press or preparing works of urgent topical significance’ (Lehmann, 39).

For writers like Lehmann, it felt very much as though people were turning away from literature and the values that it espoused.

So what were people reading in those early months, if they were reading?

Public libraries reported an increase in demand for historical and political books and, in particular, Hitler’s book Mein Kampf as people struggled to reconcile themselves to war and tried to understand how Europe had reached this point.

This got me thinking about the importance attributed to reading as a political activity at certain times.

Why were British writers like Lehmann so terrified by the apparent drop in reading?

I think this operates at an ideological level beyond their own economic or career interests.

They are fearful about a downturn in European civilisation and they identify this as synonymous with this disinterest in reading.

Literature comes to symbolise something so much more than reading during this period.

It symbolises certain values which are understood to be inherently European.

It’s this symbolism that I’m starting to examine and really think about.

I’ll be talking more about the politics of reading during the early days of the war on Radio Three’s Free Thinking  programme this Tuesday, as part of a wider discussion on reading throughout history.

** Figures taken from the Mass Observation Report Reading in Wartime – March 1940.

Psst! Incidentally Mass Observation Archives are fantastically interesting – would recommend a quick peruse to anyone…




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