The role of cultural elites and journalists in promoting reading as a means of self-improvement and social mobility
Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States
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Amy L. Blair
A person who reads a book for self-improvement rather than aesthetic pleasure is “reading up.” Reading Up is Amy Blair's engaging study of popular literary critics who promoted reading generally and specific books as vehicles for acquiring cultural competence and economic mobility. Combining methodologies from the history of the book and the history of reading, to mass-cultural studies, reader-response criticism, reception studies, and formalist literary analysis, Blair shows how such critics influenced the choices of striving readers and popularized some elite writers.
Framed by an analysis of Hamilton Wright Mabie's role promoting the concept of “reading up” during his ten-year stint as the cultivator of literary taste for the highly popular Ladies' Home Journal, Reading Up reveals how readers flocked to literary works that they would be expected to dislike. Blair shows that while readers could be led to certain books by a trusted adviser, they frequently followed their own path in interpreting them in unexpected ways.
"A well-written, thoroughly researched, and informative study of the relation between fiction reading, social mobility, and middle-class ambition in the decades marking the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries in the U.S. Reading Up offers a compelling investigation into the historically specific development of a strategy of reading designed and promoted for bourgeois readers. Blair’s study discloses not only Hamilton Wright Mabie's role in the promotion of the concept of ‘reading up’ but also his own responses to novels and his reading strategies as they played out in his columns. Reading Up is an original and impressive contribution, and it should find a place on the shelves of libraries, university scholars, and graduate students."
"Blair skillfully brings reception studies/book history methodologies to bear on canonical writers, providing a popular literary history of the Unites States around the turn of the century. Readers get a good overview of American literary criticism and how Hamilton Wright Mabie, his contemporaries, and subsequent critics have situated themselves in these debates. The ‘readings’ of Wharton, Howells, and James emerging from Reading Up are innovative, provocative, and some of the most interesting I’ve seen in years."
"Blair concludes that even today, programs such as Oprah's Book Club indicate that esteem for reading is based on its emotional and social value as well as its material: i.e., the widespread internalization of 'reading up.'... Recommended."
"Reading Up is certainly about books, but it is also about a way of using books that reveals the do-it-yourself nature of popular literary advice.... Blair has tapped into a fascinating turn-of-the-century relationship.... Scholars interested in the business of literature, the hierarchies of culture, and the construction of the striver as a social type will find Reading Up to be a good investment."
"In this stimulating work, Amy L. Blair examines the complex interactions between authors, critics, and the reading public in the early twentieth century....The bulk of this book is a careful analysis of the advice columns [Hamilton Wright] Mabie penned over ten years (1902-1912) for the Ladies Home Journal.... Well-written, creative, and persuasive, Blair uncovers the often implicit negotiations between reviewers, authors, and readers. Her work significantly enriches our understanding of socially ambitious reading in the decades before middlebrow culture."
"Blair emphasizes the importance of contextualizing books and readers in their own cultural moment.... Her idea of the 'highbrow bestseller' is one of several extremely useful concepts (the 'readable James' is another!) through which Reading Up highlights the blurry line between aesthetic taste, cultural capital, and financial ambition in the 'culture of success."
"Reading Up explains with force and wit why specialists in reception, but also literature scholars and social historians, should return to [Hamilton Wright] Mabie.... Blair derives insights grounded in Mabie’s columns.... Reception scholars will admire Blair’s lucid and well-substantiated reconstructions of the plots and characters.... Reading Up makes a powerful contribution to existing knowledge of a 'messy fracturing of the literary landscape at a very early point in the 1890s and 1900s'."
"Blair is detailed in her examination of [Hamilton Wright] Mabie’s opinions and in her analysis of how he misread or reinterpreted his subjects in service of his goals.... What is most significant for periodical studies in Blair’s work is the insight it provides into the culture wars of the turn of the last century."
"In her thoroughly researched and impressively readable Reading Up Amy Blair takes [Hamilton Wright] Mabie’s long-forgotten career as an occasion to explore and define a style of reading so foundational as to be virtually invisible....Blair convincingly posits Mabie as a proto-Oprah Winfrey, pointing out how Winfrey herself is able to assert the value of reading without ever actually having to defend that assertion chiefly because of the cultural heavy lifting her predecessor Mabie did roughly a century ago."
"Amy L. Blair is a close reader, curious researcher, and careful thinker.... Reading Up contributes substantially to our understanding of what reception theory can do to flesh out a historical epoch. It illustrates how intentional misreading can be used in service of a social agenda and makes us—lay readers as well as scholars—aware of our own intense, yet unconscious desires to read up."
Amy L. Blair is an Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee.