Commodification of Reading

One of the concerns of the educated elite of the 18th century was that reading and its related practices of printing and writing, were being commodified or mechanized, and therefore debased.

Watt explains:

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Contemporary opinion was certainly much concerned with the new influence of the booksellers, and there were frequent assertions that it had had the effect of turning literature itself into a mere market commodity. This view was expressed most succinctly by Defoe, in 1725: “Writing… is become a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-writers, and all other Operators with Pen and Ink are the workmen employed by the said Master Manufacturers.” Defoe did not condemn this commercialisation, but most of the spokesmen of traditional literary standards did so in emphatic terms. Goldsmith, for example, often deplored “that fatal revolution whereby writing is converted to a mechanic trade; and booksellers, instead of the great, become the patrons and paymasters of men of genius.” Fielding went further, and explicitly connected this “fatal revolution” with a disastrous decline in literary standards: he asserted that the “paper merchants, commonly called booksellers’, habitually employed ‘journeymen of the trade’ without ‘the qualifications of any genius or learning” (Watt 50-51 number on the bottom of page).

Prompt: DIscuss one of the following and post by midnight on Tuesday November 3rd at 11:59 pm 100-200 words.

1. Explain your understanding of the above section of Watt’s text. Do you agree that this is a big problem? Why or why not?

2. Put these concerns into the larger economic context of the time.

3. What financial influence has the Internet had publishing today? Consider e-books, self-publishing, piracy, bookstores, etc. Do you think this is a good thing? Why or why not?

4. What else beside financial concerns seems to be motivating the above 18th century reaction to changes in publishing?

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