I’ve been thinking lately about how much I take reading and writing for granted. It was sparked off almost as soon as I began to read The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose. I had a similar moment of insight when I read a book about women in the 17th century but to read of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries (some recent enough to be contemporaries of people I’ve met, not just a faceless part of history) being looked on with suspicion, shunned by their communities or losing work just because they wanted to read more than the bible, or dared to try and write, is shocking. And yet, in the face of all this they pressed on and did it anyway.
There’s a man who built up a whole library for himself, when each book cost the equivalent of his pay for 10 hours’ work; a full-price novel now costs less than a couple of hours’ work on minimum wage and even a popular non-fiction book would most likely be no more than four or five hours. There are those who set up literature-discussion groups in their village, when everyone assumed they were stirring up revolution and reacted accordingly. Factory workers were sneaking a glimpse at books when no-one was looking, weavers were propping books on the loom so they could read while they worked, scullery maids were skimping on sleep to catch up on another chapter.
It’s so easy now (for as long as the libraries stay open, at least) to read books of so many kinds no matter how low your income, and to write poetry or fiction or essays on blogs like this, never mind privately for your own amusement. I can only look to the past, my ancestors and their contemporaries, and salute them.