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.