Forgotten Books and Local Readers: Popular Fiction in the Library at the Turn of the Twentieth Century


This essay uses the records of local library borrowers' choices in the early twentieth century to approach a body of fiction that has been given many names: popular fiction, forgotten books, 'the great unread', victims of 'the slaughterhouse of literature'. These definitions are not coextensive but my interest is in works that were once read (widely, or intensively in particular places and times) and are now largely unknown. These are important to literary history in part because they form, as Margaret Cohen argues, the constitutive context in which other, more visible, literary works were read and written, published and sold. They arealso notoriously difficult to study—Glover and McCracken suggest that the critical histories of popular fiction 'are still in the process of being made' (5). The making of such histories requires that we direct our attention beyond the known to the unread books. I suggest that the best way to approach the great unread is to follow in the footsteps of those who did read these books, and to focus on the points where their paths met. The essay follows the intersecting paths of readers at a small library in regional New South Wales in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their reading leads us to a cluster of works—Katherine Thurston's The Gambler (1904), Harold MacGrath's The Man on the Box (1904) and E. Phillips Oppenheim's A Prince of Sinners (1903)—which, taken together, enable us to read between the known, the lesser known and the great unread to point to a thematic preoccupation that appears to underlie much of the reading in this library and perhaps this period more broadly: risk.

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Published 1 October 2014 in Reading Communities and the Circulation of Print. Subjects: Libraries, Popular fiction, Readers, Readership, Reading, Thurston, Katherine.

Cite as: Lamond, Julieanne. ‘Forgotten Books and Local Readers: Popular Fiction in the Library at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014, doi: 10.20314/als.c5789276b9.