Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

Part A
Institutions
Introduction

Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway

.  .  .

We noted in chapter 1 of this volume that attention to the reader is now a cardinal priority of studies in the history of print. Chapter 2 employed that priority in looking at sites of reading in 1880. The intervening chapters have given intermittent attention to readers. In this section we turn our attention centrally to readers and the institutions of literacy. It is now a widely stated premise of print culture studies that text takes on meaning only in the presence of a reader. There are, however, often intermediaries negotiating this process of interpretation. Parents, peers, teachers, and others initiate reading opportunities, encourage readers, and in various ways shape the reader’s interpretation of text.

Sometimes this mediation is institutional, and some institutions indeed are devoted centrally to literacy, that is, they select, develop standards for, promote, and dispense some body of reading matter. Schools, libraries, literary clubs, book clubs, government agencies, and literacy training programs come to mind. We have chosen two institutions—schools and libraries—that carried a great deal of weight in organizing and presenting American literate culture to readers, young and old. Two particular versions of these institutions—the public high school and the public lending library—came of age in our period, resulting in much more widespread exposure to publicly approved culture than had earlier been the case. It seems that all societies have attempted to define and control culture in some ways, especially for activities that are funded by the government. The United States was no exception.

The elementary and secondary school curriculum offered history training based in the British colonial experience in America, widening into a narrative of an expanding Protestant, republican, capitalist society. Similarly, the schools offered literature focused on the canon of English and American writers and devoted themselves both to defining quality in literature and to fostering moral

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