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 B
Reading in Situ
Introduction

Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway

.  .  .

In some sense, statistics tell the story. Illiteracy among persons ten years and older declined from 7.7 percent in 1910, to 4.3 percent in 1930, to 2.9 percent in 1940.1 In 1900 44 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1930 that figure had been reduced to 16 percent.2 High school attendance increased dramatically from less than 5 percent in 1880 to more than 50 percent in 1940.3 The number of institutions of higher learning increased from 811 in 1880 to 1,706 in 1940, with enrollment increasing from 115,817 in 1880 to 1,494,203 in 1940.4 The number of books imprinted expanded twice as fast as the population: from 2,076 titles in 1880 to 11,328 titles in 1940.5 The number of English-language daily papers went from 850 in 1880 to 1,942 in 1930, while total daily circulation increased from 3.1 million in 1880 to 39.6 million in 1930.6

Taken together, statistics like these suggest that between 1880 and 1940, reading figured in the daily lives of substantially more Americans than ever before. By 1940, in fact, the United States had become a nation of readers. Both at work and at home, print was commonplace, nearly indispensable. Given the simultaneous expansion of print culture and of the American population, which rose from 11,328,000 in 1880 to 131,954,000 in 1940, even the most cursory effort at summarizing the history of reading in the United States during this period becomes a daunting, nearly impossible task.

A general history of reading between 1880 and 1940 is beyond the scope of this volume for other reasons as well. Reading, for example, is not in itself a uniform technology or practice that is identical from place to place, moment to moment, or person to person. As so many theorists and historians of the process have pointed out in recent years, although reading can be characterized simply as the decoding of text, the nature of that decoding varies enormously depending on the complexity of the text being read, on the literacy training and

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