The national reading experience

Posted on 24th June 2021 by simonbeattie

This post was originally written for the Bibliographical Society’s ‘Council’s Choice’ for April 2021.

Some years ago, I stumbled across UK RED, the UK Reading Experience Database, and have returned to it many times since when investigating a particular book, to see what real people at the time perhaps thought of it, but often just out of idle curiosity when thinking about an author. 

Take, for example, Dostoevky.  There are infamous appraisals of the Russian novelist which one often comes across in the literature, such as that of D. H. Lawrence (‘a rat, slithering along in hate’), or Robert Louis Stevenson saying that reading Crime and Punishment was ‘like having an illness.’  But what of others?  Pleasingly, UK RED gives a range.  We learn that Crime and Punishment (in French) was one of the books Virginia Woolf read on her honeymoon in 1912: ‘You can’t think with what a fury we fall on printed matter, so long denied us by our own writing!  I read 3 new novels in two days: Leonard waltzed through the Old Wives Tale like a kitten after its tail: after this giddy career I have now run full tilt into Crime et Chatiment, fifty pages before tea, and I see there are only 800; so I shall be through in no time.  It is directly obvious that he [Dostoevsky] is the greatest writer ever born.’  (There had been an English version, published by Vizetelly in 1886, but Constance Garnett’s important translation did not appear until 1914.) 

At the other end of the social spectrum, we find Jack Jones, a labourer from the mining town of Blaengaerw, who used to borrow Russian literature from Cardiff Central Library once a month: ‘he would exchange twelve to twenty books and take them home in an old suitcase.  He read Tolstoy and Gorky, and raced through most of Dostoevsky in a month.  He was guided by a librarian who, like a university tutor, demanded an intelligent critique of everything he read.’

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