I've been involved for the last couple of weeks in debates with various bloggers about what has happened to civilisation over the last couple of centuries- has it declined? One of the indicies of that has to be what level of interest there is in books. What people read and what they understood about what they read is a perrenial and interesting debate- as is the question of what people read today and what they understand now about what they read. A useful way of considering that though is to consider what happened in the Victorian era- when popular literature exploded. It is very difficult to work out prices in the Victorian era- but at least one extimate I have seen places the pound at that point as worth twenty five to fifty pounds in today's money- maybe even one hundred pounds. A highly paid skilled workman in the period might expect to earn about 80 to 90 shillings (around 4 pounds) a week. Bear those figures in mind for what comes next.
The economics of book buying are interesting in this context- we have established a raw measure of what a person in the upper working class might be able to spend but not the price of books. In truth books were incredibly expensive. Three volume novels (of which there were many) frequently sold for 31 shillings (a pound was 20 shillings)- those in two volumes cost roughly a pound and a single volume novel was much less, retailing at 5 shillings (but these would be aimed at a younger audience). Publishers complained that the British were not a 'book buying people' and first editions numbered in hundreds of copies not the thousands often seen today. Even Middle Class readers would subscribe to a circulating library which would provide them with the newest fiction, rather than attempting to buy volumes themselves.
What changed was the growth of novels in serial form- retailed in journals like Charles Dickens' All the Year Round, these novels would be sold in parts. Almost all of Dickens's novels were originally published as episodic novels- Pickwick Papers came out in 18 separate parts. Dickens was the best selling novelist of the era: but others like Trollope, Thackery, Gaskell, Eliot and Hardy also published their works in serial form. These were much more affordable for the ordinary public. You can see the effect they had- as leading authors lamented the ill educated general public becoming involved in the process of choosing and designating successful literature: Wilkie Collins for example wrote in Household Words (then edited by Dickens) that 'the future of English fiction may rest with an Unknown public, which is now waiting to be taught the difference between a good book and a bad book'.
Of course that public did not only read novelistic fictions- alongside these fictions, a newly educated public (thanks to philanphropic enterprise and a series of education acts from the 1850s onwards) consumed so called penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. The Penny Bloods were melodramatic romances- often highly fantastical stories of derring do and crime. They caused a moral panic- in 1888 an MP raised questions with the Home Secretary about the effect of the bloods upon young boys, noting that two boys waiting their trial in Maidstone Prison for murder had been inspired by tales of Dick Turpin and Sweeney Todd. These 'bloods' also were published alongside parodies of well known authors: Oliver Twiss, Nicholas Nickerby and the Penny Pickwick were all published by Edward Lloyd when Charles Dickens' works came out and Llyod's imitations were in some cases (Pickwick in particular) vastly possible with hundreds of thousands of copies sold, in some cases more copies sold than the originals.
This profusion of literature suggests something to me though which I think is important. It suggests the explosion of a literary market- and went alongside technical innovations in printing (that Louis James for one described as the greatest innovation in printing between the time of Caxton and the 1960s). What happened was that you are beggining by the end of the 19th Century and beggining of the 20th Century to see a much greater book buying public- a public that stretched far lower into the social structure than it ever had before. You cannot undervalue that change in terms of what it did to society: what it did to the way that society operated, we may still be living with some of the consequences, or with what it did to the educational lives of many many people. Its worth remembering that change, when we speak of the decline of civilisation.