What People Read a Hundred Years Ago – by Kate Lutter

I’m happy to welcome Kate Lutter, author of Wild Point Island, as my guest here today:

Kate Lutter I write commercial fiction. Paranormal romance. At times I catch a look, a smirk, an “Oh, really,” when I announce that fact. I suppose that some people want to ask me, “Well, why don’t you write real literature, you know, like what they made us read in school? Why do you write romance?”

As if they think there’s something wrong with writing romance.

And I know what they mean.

Years ago, romance was equated with bodice ripping, sweat dripping, sex crazed stories that mostly women read and never admitted to reading, and I might add, always felt guilty about reading because . . . perhaps, they were under the delusion that everyone else was reading more high browed literature.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my favorite novel of all time is Wuthering Heights. I adore Jane Eyre. And I am an American Lit major. Plus I’ve read every Shakespearean play. Well, almost. But, still I appreciate and even applaud the fact that people enjoy commercial fiction.

Never more so than today. Or so I thought . . .

Which leads me to share what I discovered a few months ago, approximately six months ago, when Anne Trubek, author of A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses published an essay in the New York Times Book Review called, “What Muncie Read.”

What she wrote in that article will shock you!

Maybe she had an axe to grind. Maybe she wanted to prove that all the high brows in today’s society (who bemoan the fact that the readers of today read too much fluff and can’t compare with the readers of, say, 100 years ago who supposedly read pure literature) were dead wrong.

Anne Trubek has evidence to support her claim.

It seems that Frank Felsenstein, a historian at Ball State University, discovered several unmarked boxes on a shelf in the Muncie Public Library—crumbling ledgers and notebooks—which identified every book checked out of the library from November 1891 to December 1902.

Felsenstein and colleagues began cataloguing the records. What emerged is now considered “one of the few authoritative records of American reading.”

So what were Americans reading at the turn of the century?

Great literature?

I have to admit that I wanted to know because I had sold my first novel, and it was not a great work of literature. Wild Point Island is commercial fiction, a paranormal Romance, and I needed justification. Even though the reader reviews were calling it a page-turner, I couldn’t help but wonder if my book had been published back in 1891, would it have fared well among the population of Muncie, Indiana?

Overall, here are ten startling statistics from the records:

1. Fiction was preferred over non-fiction, accounting for 92% of the books read in 1903.

2. Women read romances.

3. Kids read pulp fiction.

4. White-collar workers read mass-market titles.

5. The most popular author read during that time period was Horatio Alger, famous for his rags to riches novels. Five percent of all books checked out were by him, which meant that the readers back then preferred feel good, happy ending stories. (Since 50% of books sold today are romance novels, I guess not so much has changed.)

6. Louisa May Alcott is the only author who was widely read back then who can be considered both literary and popular. Her novel Little Men was more popular than Little Women because both boys and girls read it. The other authors who were most often checked out are today unknowns.

7. Comparatively speaking: the number of times an author was checked out:

Charles Dickens: 672 times
Walter Scott: 651 times
Shakespeare: 201 times
Francis Marion Crawford (novels set in Italy and the Orient): 2,120 times (Would the Muncie townspeople have enjoyed a novel set on a mythical island off the coast of North Carolina like Wild Point Island? Maybe.)
Henry James’ longer novels: 0 times
Walt Whitman’s poetry: 0 times
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 149 times (even though it was banned in some libraries back then)

8. Some other books were banned from the Muncie library including Karl Marx and Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

9. Blue-collar workers were slightly more likely to check out the so-called “classics” because the white-collar workers already had them in their houses.

10. As to whether people had more time to read in those days, in the 1920’s the Lynds, authors of “Middletown: A Study in American Culture,” surveyed business-class women about reading: “I would read if only I had the energy and quiet,” one said. “I just read magazines in my scraps of time,” the other said.

Some things never change. People still complain today about the lack of time to relax and do the things they want to do.

My conclusion: The people of Muncie, Indiana, were remarkably like the people of today. They enjoyed reading commercial fiction—romance.

If I lived at the turn of the century and were a writer, my novel Wild Point Island would have done just fine.

Well, in all honestly, it probably would have suffered the same fate as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and been banned from the library altogether.

If you’re interested in seeing for yourself the records that Felsenstein and his colleagues catalogued, be my guest and log onto: http://whatmiddletownread.wordpress.com/

Wild Point Island_FrontCover

Wild Point Island

Banished from Wild Point Island as a child, Ella Pattenson, a half human-half revenant, has managed to hide her true identity as a descendent of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Thought to have perished, the settlers survived but were transformed into revenants–immortal beings who live forever as long as they remain on the island.

Now, Ella must return to the place of her birth to rescue her father from imprisonment and a soon to be unspeakable death. Her only hope is to trust a seductive revenant who seems to have ties to the corrupt High Council. Simon Viccars is sexy and like no man she’s ever met. But he’s been trapped on the island for 400 years and is willing to do almost anything for his freedom.

With the forces of the island conspiring against her, Ella must risk her father, her heart, and her life on love.

Wild Point Island at Amazon.com
Wild Point Island at Barnes & Noble

Bio: Kate Lutter believes she was born to write. She wrote her first novel when she was in eighth grade, but then almost burned her house down when she tried to incinerate her story in the garbage can because she couldn’t get the plot to turn out right. Now, many years later, she lives in NJ with her husband and five cats (no matches in sight) and spends her days writing contemporary paranormal romances, traveling the world, and hanging out with her four wild sisters. She is happy to report that her debut novel, Wild Point Island, the first in a series, has just been published by Crescent Moon Press. She is busy writing the sequel and her weekly travel blog entitled Hot Blogging with Chuck, which features her very snarky and rascally almost famous cat.

Website: www.katelutter.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/katelutternovelist
Blog: www.katelutter.blogspot.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/katelutter
Email: katelutter.author@gmail.com

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14 thoughts on “What People Read a Hundred Years Ago – by Kate Lutter

  1. Kate,
    I so enjoyed your blog today with Morgen. Thanks, Morgern 🙂 As a former HS language arts teacher (and, non sequitur, Jersey-shore girl), I totally relate to your love of the classics. WUTHERING HEIGHTS–yes!! But also like you, HEA holds a very special, if different, place in my heart. No need to apologize for reading and writing romance…though some still feel it’s required.Your reading stats are fascinating–and make me smile.
    Best of luck… You’re now on my must-read list 🙂
    Diane
    dianeokey.com
    CHERISH THE KNIGHT

  2. Kate, as the daughter of a now retired English Prof who raided his bookshelves and grew up on the classics, I found this post particularly fascinating. Although I read widely as a teen and young adult from his selections, I soon discovered the romantics in the offering. And I decided I adored the happier endings and wondered why a book generally wasn’t considered ‘well done’ if it didn’t leave you feeling like you wanted to shoot yourself. And so I gradually gravitated into the world of romance and commercial fiction, although I still like good historical nonfiction with my historical bent. Your book sounds incredible. Very unique. I have an ancestor on the role of passengers who sailed to and became the Lost Colony. That whole era and mystery has always intrigued me. You just made my must read list too. Thanks for a great post. I’d love to have you guest on my blog sometime.

  3. Interesting post, Kate! My philosophy when it comes to reading is: Too many books, too little time. So I confess my reading taste is rather narrow. I’m happy-ever-after-aholic.

  4. No need to apologize Kate about anything you write, and I’m sure most of your so-called critics would be glad to be published authors, btw…and I think the world needs more happy endings, both in literature and real life…
    Hopefully you’re writing your manuscripts out on computer these days and not paper…makes them a little harder to torch in times of frustration…and best of luck with the book…:)
    Cheers,
    Alan.

  5. There are always people who complain about others’ reading habits. I’ve also discovered that those who complain the most are usually the worst offenders. Like the man (it’s usually a man) who condemns as trash the romance novels women read, but who reads (or more likely just looks at the pictures) in Playboy and Penthouse.

    The bad part is that women’s reading habits are usually the target of these self-appointed reading security officers. Women’s choices are no worse than men’s and probably better. After all, mainly men read all those violent war and crime stories.

  6. That’s great. I figured people read more back then because there wasn’t any TV to distract them. Although who they were reading surprised me. I thought it would be the more popular ones like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

    People will always stick their nose in the air about something. Be proud of being a writer of what ever genre you write in.

    Janice~

  7. Fascinating. At first my skeptic came out and I thought, “why do I care what people were reading a century ago” and yet, I kept reading. I love it when someone gets past my skeptic. And because you did, next I’m going to go check out Wild Point Island… You hooked me with your, “it would have been banned” line. I love just about anything that points to our growth as human beings. Tolerating and embracing the interests, cultures and beliefs of others hooks me every time!

  8. WOW!! Thanks everybody for not only reading my blog, but for responding with such insightful comments. I was truly fascinated when I first read the article in the NY Times Book Review and then later looked at some of the books that were actually taken out and read 100 years ago. I was actually a bit delighted to see that people are more eclectic in their reading habits than, perhaps, we give them credit for. I grew up reading the great literature and came late to more commercial fiction–I still read all kinds of genre fiction–and, yeah, I’m proud of that, and yeah, it’s taken me awhile to say that. But, thanks, not only for reading the blog but also for commenting on it. AND for those who will look into WIld Point Island — YIPPEE!!! Oh, and, Babette, thanks for hosting me . . . you have a fab site!!

  9. What a fascinating post! I had no idea popular fiction was, well, always popular. It proves that people want to be entertained as well as enlightened, and that people have always liked a happy ending. I do applaud great literature, but the busier I become, the more I simply want to be entertained with a book that ends well.

  10. This is awesome. I have been collecting 19th century romance novels since I was a teen. A lot are still out there and I can see why they were so popular. Some are even quite steamy (if you are good at reading between the lines). I’m also always surprised how man YA books from 100+ years ago are still out there at flea markets and library sales. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Very interesting statistics. Remember when the Brontes were writing, fiction was not something a decent person read. When I was 12 I read Tom Jones (considered the first novel). In order to get it published, he alternated between the story and lectures on morality. Once I figured that out, I just skipped every other chapter! (btw, when the movie came out I wanted to go. My mother said, “Absolutely not, you’re too young.” Until I pointed out I’d read the book….. 🙂 M. S. Spencer

    • Thanks so much for sharing that info–not only about Tom Jones but about your own experiences. I love it. When I was younger, I was such a voracious reader–would go to the library once a week and had special dispensation from the librarian to take out more than the usual number of books that were allowed for someone my age–ha. ha. Can you imagine? Anyway, somehow I always ended up with one or two torrid love stories that my mother would yank out of my pile–declare unfit for my young eyes–and then read herself. Years later she declared I had a knack for finding the best books!!! Take care. Kate

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