The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880

By Candy Gunther Brown | Go to book overview

4
Readers and Writers Navigate
the Currents of the Market

The “special danger” of the times, warned Yale president and Congregationalist minister Noah Porter in 1870, was that “so many books” were cheaply available to the “mass of the community.” Porter's concern reflected an age-old evangelical tension between the ideal of a priesthood of all believers and the desire of a clerical elite, represented by Porter, to regulate lay practices. Like most of his contemporaries, Porter assumed that some form of external regulation inevitably shaped reading choices. Porter worried about competition among sources of authority and that those who were religious would lose out to those who were not. In an era of rapid print market expansion, new, market-oriented elite, including authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, and reviewers, challenged the authority of an older religious establishment who felt increasingly anxious to maintain the purity of the Word amid cultural change. Publishers and booksellers could, warned Porter, advise potential purchasers only as to which books were “popular,” a quality that Porter considered of dubious value. Distrusting the ability of the average reader to make prudent choices without trustworthy guidance, Porter envisioned the mission of men like himself as educating and reforming popular reading tastes. With this end in view, he published an advice manual, Books and Reading; Or, What Books Shall I Read and How Shall I Read Them? (1870), which aimed at mediating between readers and the market. Porter argued that because books exerted a powerful influence, both directly and indirectly, readers must learn how to select from among alternatives even more carefully than they selected their “friends and intimates.”1

Porter worried as much about how readers approached texts as he did

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