Reading is a town in England. It is an important stop on the London – Bristol, Great Western mainline. However, this is a post about the activity of reading. So, it’s books on the train.
Roy Porter has described how the advent of the 18C philosophical enlightenment played itself out in Britain through a profound change in the manner of reading. Previously, those that read had tended to re-read a single text, typically the Bible, in detail. This is the idea of textual scrutiny that still prevails amongst scholars. This was replaced, as part of a philosophical methodology, by a much wider reading…
The advent of the railway provided for a new type of recreational reading. The relative tranquility of the railway carriage provided just the type of environment for reading. Furthermore, the act of reading was understood as a powerful signal of “do not disturb!”
From the beginning, newspapers, magazines and books were supplied to entertain the railway traveller. W H Smith founded his eponymous company as railway station kiosks and newsagents.
More recently, Penguin books was established in the 1930s, by Allen Lane, as a way of supplying serious but inexpensive (paperback) books to the railway traveller. Interestingly, it was WW2 that provided a huge expansion in the market for books. The uncertain journeys and long waits of wartime Britain usually required more than one book!
In addition to these practical and business considerations, the railway journey also played a part in defining the form of the modern novel – defining chapters and length especially.