Soldiers reading

In Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) Q.D.Leavis is very keen to prove that the contemporary novel is used mainly as a drug, as a substitute for living. Part of her evidence is that:

men, coming from the trenches who had been deprived of reading matter for some short while would, however weary, seize on any kind of book or periodical or even a piece of newspaper to satisfy the […] craving.

This seems very credible, that after a stressful time men would grasp the opportunity for a quite private time, and for the contact with a world distant from the trenches. However, she also quotes from a speech by a former Minister of Education, telling this anecdote:

Discomfort and exhaustion seem only to increase the need for the printed word. A friend, in describing the advance of one of his columns in East Africa during the war, has remarked how his men, sitting drenched and almost without food round the camp fire, would pass from a hand to hand a scrap of a magazine cover, in order that each man might rest his eyes for a moment on the printed word.

Really? Were they that desperate for the sight of print? Or were they passing something that had meaning for them, but meant nothing to the officer who passed on the story. Once when I was a teacher, I recall some giggling moving along the back row of desks. Eventually I discovered that the students were passing along a photo from a magazine that they thought bore a resemblance to myself. (It didn’t, I insist. the person depicted looked quite ridiculous.) Maybe the soldiers were keeping up their spirits in grim circumstances with some such joke.
Fiction and the Reading Public is a book written with passion and a terrific read. Parts are prophetic; parts are irretrievably dated. The first sentence states:

In twentieth-century England not only every one can read, but it is safe to add that everyone does read.

Those were the days.



  1. Posted March 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    This is from John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World. Not certain of the date, probably sometime in 1917.

    “…We came down to the front of the Twelfth Army, back of Riga, where gaunt and bootless men sickened in the mud of desperate trenches; and when they saw us they started up, with their pinched faces and flesh showing blue through their torn clothing, demanding eagerly, ‘Did you bring anything to read!…”

  2. janevsw
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Remembering the moment in “Mr Standfast” where Richard Hannay describes “Leprous Souls” circulating for a little while before disappearing into the mud from whence it came…

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      Am I right in thinking that with ‘Leprous Souls’, Buchan was taking a swipe at Dostoevsky, whose books were appearing in English (in the Constance Garnett translations) during the war years? Raskolnikov is about as different from a Buchan hero as one could imagine.

      • janevsw
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        I’ve always assumed something similar, but I don’t know for certain – it doesn’t feature on the JBS website, and I don’t know whether it has been discussed somewhere else.

        “The Powerhouse” has the following dedication:
        “A recent tale of mine has, I am told, found favour in the dug-outs and billets on the British front, as being sufficiently short and sufficiently exciting for men who have little leisure to read. My friends in that uneasy region have asked for more. So I have printed this story, written in the smooth days before the war, in the hope that it may enable an honest man here and there to forget for an hour the too urgent realities… “

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