Literary Taste: how much is worth?

When Literary Taste was republished in 1938 as a Pelican Special it contained an Appendix written by Frank Swinnerton in which he noted editions of books that were available in either the Penguin or Pelican libraries. Swinnerton wrote “In themselves, the titles here listed form a remarkable library, particularly of what is immediately outstanding in modern literature….” A reader keen to form a literary taste in 1938 was advised, among others, to buy Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. They would have paid 6d for the Pelican edition of Literary Taste and, had they bought all thirty three books on the list, would have spent a further 17/-.

Using the MeasuringWorth website I can see that 6d in 1938 would have been worth £1.19 in 2010, using the Retail Price Index as a guide. The 17/- spent on buying all the books on the list would, by the same criteria be worth £40.50. The average nominal wage in 1938, decimal not pre-decimal, was £161.87. To buy a copy of Literary Taste, possibly from Boots which had agreed to stock Allen Lane’s Penguin and Pelican books, you would be spending just under 10% of your monthly wage, while all thirty three books would have represented 25% of your annual income.

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that forming a literary taste was a matter of economics. Easy and simplistic. There is the role also played by education, expectations and class, sometime in unexpected combinations. You could borrow books if you did not want to buy them. Public and subscription libraries were popular, but often because they stocked large numbers of best sellers by L.A.Strong or Daphne du Maurier. Going to the cinema was also popular throughout the decade: a ticket would cost the same as Penguin or Pelican book. Working class audience enjoyed Hollywood films such as those made by the Marx brothers and disliked the quota quickies, British films made by American studios; a legal obligation if they were to show their own. Nor would any of the above have been mutually exclusive. There’s no reason to think that someone who read Literary Taste could not also enjoy A Day at the Races. 

No graph I’m afraid. I’m still reading The Love Letters of Dorothy Osbourne and will have it finished for the New Year.

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