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Reading on the move: a Victorian precedent

Our taste for portable reading matter is nothing new. Historian Ralph Harrington looks at the reading habits of the railway age, and uncovers a wealth of ingenuity to inspire today’s publishers and readers

The future, it seems, is Victorian – at least as far as digital publishing is concerned. The serial novel, beloved of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and many other nineteenth-century authors both celebrated and obscure, is experiencing a digital revival, and Dickensian London is finding new interpretations through interactive apps and online literature/art crossover projects. Current controversies also have a Victorian feel, from questions of how authors are to be paid to the ongoing problem of piracy and the theft of content. As for the bigger picture, we have in our digital times a renewed and more extreme version of a problem the nineteenth century constantly grappled with – how society, governments, commercial interests and individuals are to deal with a huge explosion in the volume of published material.

This resurgence in recognizably Victorian concerns brings H. G. Wells to mind, writing in Anticipations at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, describing one of the ways in which the railway train was ‘a perfect symbol of our times’, an image of ‘a Democratic century’: ‘uncomfortably full in the third class – a few passengers standing – and everybody reading the current number either of the Daily Mail, Pearson’s Weekly, Answers, Tit Bits, or whatever Greatest Novel of the Century happened to be going’. The train was then a natural place to sit (or stand) and read, and it remains so: a railway carriage probably plays host every day to more people reading than the average small-town library. But now the choice offered of what we can read and the ways we can read it are wider than ever before – a breadth of choice that would have thrilled, and alarmed, Wells and his contemporaries.

The book itself as a convenient and personal delivery system for content (books that went with you, rather than you going to them) is essentially a product of the Victorian age. The small, sometimes soft-backed volume, designed to slip into pocket or bag, to rest in the lap or in the hand without exerting undue strain, was developed by Victorian publishers with the traveller, and particularly the rail traveller, in mind. Many publishers offered collections of books under series titles such as ‘Longman’s Traveller’s Library’, to be sold at station bookstalls to the traveller seeking entertainment on a long journey. And what books they were: highbrow critics and leader writers in The Times reacted with shock and outrage to the sensational volumes that filled the shelves of railway bookstalls, as publishers invited travellers to while away their journeys with titles such as Violet: Or, the Danseuse and Zingra, the Gypsy. Sex and sensation were the orders of the day: Fifty Shades of Grey has many a nineteenth-century predecessor, if that is any compensation.

What is perhaps particularly interesting from an early twenty-first century viewpoint is the experiments in form engaged in Victorian publishers keen to exploit the marketplace for mobile reading. Many nineteenth-century books for travellers were physically innovative, with fold-outs and removable sections in guidebooks, books printed in strip form to give a minute-by-minute account of a particular journey, imaginative combinations of pictures and text.

Content, too, morphed and changed. Long narrative texts (often printed in what seems to us unfeasibly tiny type) were plentiful, but there were increasing numbers of books consisting of short disjointed paragraphs, fragmented texts that could be read in any order: jokes, fascinating facts, snippets of information to entertain and intrigue the traveller. Flick through Railway Readings, published by J. Vincent of Oxford in 1847, and you find a miscellany of short paragraphs providing interesting snippets of information to distract you from your boring travelling companions or the unappealing view from the window: ‘Alligators, on the habits of’, ‘Charles V, curious anecdote of’, ‘Sheep, strange use of in Brazil’.

Puzzle books too were popular, with those pioneers of interactivity the crossword and the word-search making an appearance in the railway traveller’s library. The technological issues of providing a successful mobile reading experience also preoccupied the Victorians. Shaped ‘book cushions’ were available which would support your chosen volume comfortably in your lap as you rattled along in your compartment; while when it became dark you could switch on your ‘railway reading lamp’, which clipped to your clothing and cast a bright electric beam on the pages of your book, powered by a convenient portable battery (weight one-and-a-half pounds) which lived in your pocket.

So what can the Victorians teach us? They had their anxieties, of course: over the harm to eyesight and brain caused by straining to read in the rattling, shaking railway compartment, the cultural degeneration threatened by the low standards of crude and sensational railway reading matter and the social etiquette of reading during a journey as opposed to talking (an issue which also preoccupied the stage-coach generations of Georgian and Regency England). The concerns expressed by some Victorian doctors over the strain caused to hands, shoulders and neck by trying to hold a book and read in the train find an echo today in ‘iPad neck’ and ‘iPad shoulder’.

Yet our nineteenth-century predecessors were excited by the possibilities rather than scared, and confident that for every problem human ingenuity created the same ingenuity would provide a solution. They did not fetishize the book but deconstructed and repurposed it, seeing it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Content was more important than form, and content was only of value if it could be made widely available. The Victorians successfully reached out to new reading publics; we all continue to benefit from the legacy they left for us. We could do worse than take inspiration from some of their attitudes as we face the problems and challenges of the age of digital print.

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