The Book in the Twentieth Century Part 4: war and competing media

This historical definition of the twentieth century as related to book publishing  over the last two posts has covered 6 elements. Before ending this series, I want to cover two more areas: first, the vital importance of war to publishing, and secondly, and inevitably, the relationship of book publishing to other media, a crucial characteristic of twentieth-century publishing.

We may not like to think this, but war is a time when information storage and retrieval and transmission of all sorts leaps to prominence, whether it be the effect of the Crimean and Peninsular wars in the nineteenth centuries on demand for newspapers, the effect of WWI on increasing demand for published images of the war and on staff shortages at printing works – which obviously caused its own problems – or what I’m going to write about here, the effect of WWII on the book as we know it.

In many ways, WWII is just as important as anything previously mentioned in previous posts.

First, it promoted the idea of a national literature. In America, for instance, it had an enormous impact on the consolidation of the canon of Great American Books. In 1941 was published one of the foundational books that defined what was to be included in the American canon – and of course excluded from it. This was F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance, a volume that effectively set the syllabus for schools and universities for decades to come.

If this was what we may call a top-down effect, there was also some influence of what people were actually reading on what academics decided should be canonised: Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby had sunk without trace, an utter flop on its appearance in 1925. Chosen for free distribution amongst the American forces during WWII partly because the copyright was very cheap, The Great Gatsby began to be read by large numbers of people for the first time. Following the war, academics who had read it when serving in the forces started to publish on The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald in general.

That very brief paragraph and the previous blog’s pointed opening with the Penguin “forces edition” of A Room of One’s Own can only open the subject up for discussion rather than explore it in detail – I shall certainly return to it at a later date – but it is important to acknowledge the very obvious fact that historical events, of which war is a very powerful example, impact enormously on the configuration of the book publishing industry.

During the war there was enormous demand for reading matter: people not only wanted information on specific subjects such as the military – no fewer than 229 new titles were published on military matters in 1943 alone, as opposed to only 62 in 1937 – but people had long empty periods of waiting between scenes of action and long evenings to kill with not much to do because of blackouts and rationing.

The publishing industry found in fact that due to rationing of paper it was unable to meet demand. Fortunately for publishers, it had a ready-made lobbying body in the Publishers Association which succeeded in preventing the imposition of Purchase Tax on books and in negotiating on a national scale the Book Production War Economy Agreement. This latter determined both the quality of paper and the size of type in order to produce savings.

Paper rationing – which came to an end only in 1949 – was instrumental in establishing the dominance of the paperback for the production methods used for paperbacks actually used less paper than their equivalent in hardback. Furthermore the pared down visual style imposed by wartime restrictions was highly influential on later developments in design.

The final element in my analysis of the “twentieth century” in publishing terms is competition between media technologies. For books and the literature they carry cannot be separated out from other media. We need in theory to consider film, radio and TV. I’ve no intention of going into the interaction of these media in any detail here, but there are some points I feel it’s important to make.

These media have all interacted in complicated ways with literature: not only is there the obvious phenomenon of the spin-off, the film of the book, the talking book (on radio, tape or CD), the radio play of the book and so on, but also these other, electric, media have all affected printed book “literature”. The influence of film on literature is well documented, especially in the eraly twenteth century, from Kafka, Thomas Mann, Joyce to Fitzgerald (at the end of the century and at the obvious level of cultural reference, one recalls the importance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1965) in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997)). More importantly from my perspective is the dating of the electric  media’s  influence on considerations of literature. While film had been widely consumed since the early years of the twentieth century, radio from the 1920s, from the 1950s it was TV that proved to be the rival technology to the book. Consumed sitting in the home, TV became a rival not to radio (one could by the 1950s listen to radio all around the house) but to the book. The similar physical postures involved in the consumption of  TV and the book put them into competition.

It’s important to remember how poor people were before the war. Over the 1920s and 30s leisure accounted for less than 5% of national expenditure. Such poverty unsurprisingly hampered media expansion. It was the post-war boom that saw the greatest changes in media consumption – I’ve already mentioned the importance of the 1950s for the transformation of book production methods. In many ways the nineteenth century ended 50 or even 60 years too late as the old production methods were replaced wholescale by the new only after the second world war.

Now at exactly this time we see the birth of modern media studies – a birth largely and paradoxically in book form: not only Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy of 1962 and his Understanding Media of 2 years later, but work on the history of popular reading by Margaret Dalziel, Richard Altick, Louis James, Mary Noel and others. Richard Hoggart was considering The Uses of Literacy in 1957 just two years after ITV started in London and the BBC killed off Grace Archer in an attempt to prevent the curious tuning in to the upstart channel. Of course, there had been studies of mass or popular reading before – one thinks of Q.D. Leavis’s ill-informed and inaccurate (but very influential) Fiction and the Reading Public of 1932 ‑ but what was new at this time was the extent of interest in and concern over the new media and a corresponding re-evaluation of the old. No longer did “English” and “American Literature” remain with their sights on a few canonical classics, but the field began to widen to include texts not previously considered “literature”: not only was contemporary popular culture analysed (Barthes’s journalism collected as Mythologies in 1957 remains a key example), but popular fiction and even journalism began to be studied historically. Important for me, this is the period when the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals was born, and when the interdisciplinary Victorian Studies was first published. Television was not of course the only or even an obviously direct or major propellor of these paradigm shifts in the study of literature, but the incursion of popular entertainment into the home, once the province of the book, must surely have contributed to the gradual (and by no means inevitable or certain) democratisation of literature that the following years witnessed.

What, we may well ask, will the twenty-first century do to the book?

When I wrote the first version of these past 4 blogs as a lecture in 2000, I thought that perhaps we were entering a similar phase to the 1950s and 60s of new technology and new awareness: the world wide web was only 7 years old and everyone was excited about the possibilities for new configurations of meaning. A lot of writing appeared about that.
Thirteen years on and the www is now post-pubescent, well through its university course and thrilled less with new configurations of meaning than new possibilities for consumption. The paper book seems an antiquated medium from which targetted ads are excluded. Will that be sufficient reason for its survival?

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at

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