Reading and Books in 1938 - people read, a lot but apparently not enough. Compared to now they were voracious.

What Are People Reading? – 1938 – Past Daily Reference Room

Reading and Books in 1938 – people read a lot, but apparently not enough. Compared to now they were voracious.

American Library Association – What Are People Reading? – NBC – June 13, 1938 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

In 1938 there were concerns people weren’t reading as much as they used to. The culprit was Radio. Some felt it was easier for the average person to listen rather than read, and because of that, readership was in danger of dropping off dramatically. Reading took a good degree of concentration and being in the right circumstances of light and quiet. Radio could be anywhere and it required almost no concentration.

During this convention of the American Library Association, newly elected President Dr. Milton J. Ferguson answers questions over this problem and what was being done about it. What was going to draw people back into libraries and what about the relative dearth of bookstores in the average American city? According to studies, there were only 1500 bookstores in the United States in 1938. And of those, only 300 were considered active and important. An example of only five bookstores in all of Kansas City (where the ALA Convention was being held) and over 32 million people in the U.S. who lived nowhere near a bookstore and many millions more who lived nowhere near a public library.

And those who were still reading, what were they interested in? What kinds of books attracted the average American book reader? Fiction certainly won hands down, followed by biographies and travel – a new trend was fictionalized travel books. Also popular were books that reflected the times – books on economics (owing to the recent Depression) and books on history (owing to the events brewing in Europe in 1938).

But the concern at the time was that Americans weren’t reading nearly enough and not taking anywhere near full advantage of the public library. Interesting to compare that to the subject of reading now, where reading in general is dramatically below even 1938 standards. And bookstores, which have been in an almost continual state of closing for years, owing to the popularity of Amazon and Kindle.

It’s fascinating to see what has changed and the circumstances surrounding that change. In 1938 the culprit was radio – in 2022 the culprit is Social Media – books are almost a thing of the past, or to borrow from the current popularity of vinyl albums, the tactile sensation of actually holding something tangible having its roots in nostalgia more than actual preference. Still, we were afraid we were going to become a nation of dummies in 1938 – in 2022 we’re still afraid of becoming a nation of dummies.

But despite all that . . .

Have a listen to what the American Library Association was talking about over NBC Radio on June 13, 1938.


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