There’s nothing quite like a cold night to make me want to curl up under a blanket with a good book.  Thinking about reading has also caused me to revisit some articles about books and reading.

In September, The Atlantic included a piece about publishing during World War Two.  But before I reflect on its content, let me fill in two gaps.  First of all, the era of the dime novel ran roughly from the Civil War to the Great Depression.  These stories tended toward the themes of nationalism and good versus evil, and with the development of inexpensive published books, reading was embraced by the working class.  (For more on dime novels, see collections at Stanford, Villanova, and the Library of Congress.)  Secondly, in 1926 the Book of the Month Club was launched, and for nearly a century, it delivered a new book to its members every month.  In so doing, it created a culture where books were items to be consumed in a physical, not just an intellectual, sense.

Now we can pick up with The Atlantic piece.  It points out that before World War Two, reading materials were largely dictated by class status, with dime novels being most popular among the working class and “serious books” the purview of the wealthy, who had both the time to track down these rare tomes and the money to invest in them.  But during World War Two, Pocket Books and Penguin Books decided to start publishing a wide variety of titles in an inexpensive paperback format, to be sold at magazine and newspaper stands.  The Council on Books in Wartime got on the bandwagon, and in February 1943 proposed to sell millions of books to the army at six cents a volume.  W.W. Norton, the chair of the council, convinced his fellow publishers that this business venture would pay off in the long run by creating a nation of readers.  He explained that the purpose was to offer “‘new books and books of enduring value,’ that might keep soldiers and sailors ‘in touch with thought and currents of life in their country.'”  As the author concludes, “By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares.  More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all.”  And in the process, these Armed Services Editions destigmatized paperback books.

During Homecoming weekend in 2009, the Duke Magazine hosted a forum about the future of reading and the impact of technology on reading.  Sven Birkerts explained that printed books have always been “premised on individual authorship, on systematized classification, and on cumulative progress along a timeline, at least where scholarship is concerned.”  Libraries have filled the role of providing centralized access to books but in a larger sense have also “been our culture’s way of putting an institutional imprimatur on the life of the mind.”  He goes on to make a compelling argument that physical books in libraries — with their intentional collection and organized classification and arrangement — contribute to the “structure of knowledge.”  And while the printed book undergirds the principle of authorship, the reading that is typically done from screens and databases is much more fluid and collaborative — what Birkerts refers to as “the hiving of information.”

Given the preponderance of electronic devices used today for all sorts of reading and information gathering, there is obvious cause for concern about the future of reading and libraries.  A few months ago, a technology writer for The Atlantic cited a poll by the Pew Research Center that actually found millennials are almost ten percent more likely to have read a book in the past year than their over-thirty counterparts.  But at the same time, they were more likely to have used a library website than to have actually visited a library to check out a book.

The transformation that shaped the libraries that most of us recognize was begun by Andrew Carnegie, who spent about $60 million in the early 20th century to create 1,689 public libraries across the United States.  (Prior to this point, most libraries had been subscription libraries, reserved for the wealthy.)  In the words of a 2013 NPR story, “public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools.”

In light of our changing reading habits, I guess the question that remains is whether public libraries can continue to position themselves as necessities and instruments of change.  I for one hope we as a society can continue to embrace these institutions that sanction the life of the mind.

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