It’s difficult to encapsulate in one post the various topics William St Clair explores in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Thus, I want to focus on some common themes running through the chapters about readers and their habits in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A common topic discussed in St Clair’s work and one that heavily shapes reading practices is changes to intellectual property law. He puts particular emphasis on one change, namely the 1774 decision to extend copyright law (124), which resulted in the canonization of literature easily accessible and older as its lifespan surpassed statutory copyright.
In Scotland, for example, publishers were limited by 1710 Act and thus canonized much older works than London publishers who owned copyright to more recent works. St Clair explains,
The old canon of poetry [consisting of Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, and so forth) owed its birth and its long life more the vagaries of the intellectual property regime, than to any carefully considered judgments. Its demise as a formal canon too owed more to the coming out of copyright of the romantic poets in the 1850s and 1860s and the resulting opportunities for them to be published together in a uniform canonising series, than to any sudden change of readerly taste. (128)
Recently published works were more expensive, and therefore, were not reprinted, but because of the 1774 decision, reprints of works out of copyright increased. A similar process occurs with prose as works are selected based on their copyright status and mass-produced a cheap price.
Furthermore, the dissemination of copyrighted work was heavily regulated. For instance, they were prevented from being anthologized or abridged (this was particularly necessary for verse/poetry). According to St Clair, “To forbid anthologies, abridgements, and adaptations was therefore to further divide the reading nation both by socio-economic class and by the degree of absolescence of the texts to which different constituencies had access” (66). Historicist and literary scholars have overestimated the pervasiveness of print and reading in the eighteenth century, even after perpetual copyright was established as illegal (54).
Monopolies on print continued from guilds in the 16th century to the Stationers Company in 17th and then to London printers in the 18th and early 19th century. Practices that would allow access to books, especially, were regulated as publishers made sure that their prices remained high and competition remained low. Thus, they preferred to “‘waste’ unsold socks rather than remainder them. The renting of books from bookshops and coffee houses were discouraged, reversing a trend of the previous century. Abridgements were seldom permitted, and the reprinting of passages from printed books in periodicals outlawed” (99). Publishers also closely monitored the extent to which literature was quoted in reviews in order to limit and regulate access to intellectual property.
Reading societies are also not as liberal as one would assume for they were organized by class. As St Clair’s table of “Characteristics of collective reading institutions” effectively summarizes, book clubs and subscription libraries were designed for upper class gentleman while “mechanics” libraries, a product of the industrial revolution, were also limited to men. Even though they catered to urban working class, the material was limited to “utilitarian” literature such as history and travel.
St Clair’s work gives modern readers a nuanced perspective on print culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As he suggests, it is well into the nineteenth century that print becomes ubiquitous, and though, copyright law and the rights it gives to publishers/booksellers prevents access to print, it does not entirely curtail education but changes the way in which it is instituted. This is evident from the process literature goes through during canonization and its dissemination to lower income branches of society.