Reading as war effort: the National Home Reading Union during the First World War
Susann LiebichView the article abstract
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the National Home Reading Union (NHRU), a British educational organisation concerned with guiding working-class and middle-class readers in their reading practices and choices, issued a pamphlet with advice on reading in wartime. An enthusiastic appeal to readers in Britain and to members of the Union to keep up their reading and study as they had done before the outbreak of the War, the address also stressed that the right kind of reading was now, in times of conflict, more important than ever before. This article considers the ways in which the NHRU redefined the everyday practice of reading as a crucial part of the war effort during the First World War. By drawing on the Union’s magazines and other publicity material, this article explores the changing meanings of reading during the First World War, paying attention to the larger discourse about reading, what constituted the right kind of reading, both in terms of practices and content, and how reading could be constructed as a productive activity that constituted active expressions of patriotism and citizenship. The cultural responses to the First World War and the importance of the printed word in times of conflict have received sustained scholarly attention, and current reappraisals of the cultural history of the First World War in light of its centenary have already contributed to a renewed interest in the war’s intellectual history. Much of that scholarly attention has focussed on the ways in which the War acted as a prompt to writing and print considering the literary responses to the First World War, the production of texts during and after the conflict, and the role of writing for expressions of patriotism or dissent. Some scholars have begun to interrogate the reception of print and the reading practices of civilians and soldiers, highlighting that the War made reading more urgent and brought into sharper focus the need for reading for a variety of purposes. Readers read for relief, distraction and escape, and they also read for information, education, and to gain a sense of understanding of the world around them. Reading constituted an important mechanism for coming to terms with and living through a world at war, and readers in Britain and elsewhere in the British world participated in the War by knowing about it. This article extends current understandings of wartime reading and argues that through organisations such as the NHRU, the reading practices of civilians formed part of the war effort. Much of the NHRU’s message during its 40-year existence concerned the effect of reading as steadying minds, increasing mental capacities and thus exercising a general, civilising influence. This rhetoric about the broader societal value of reading – everyday, general reading of fiction and non-fiction, though of the right kind – was emphasised during the War as especially important and urgent. Crucially, the NHRU framed reading as an act of duty and service. Placing the work of the NHRU within the broader scholarship on patriotic organisations and the war work of civilians, this article argues that the NHRU extended the concept of good citizenship to the practices of reading.
Key Words: National Home Reading Union, reading practices, patriotism, war effort, citizenship, reading advice,