Book-collecting and literature in eighteenth-century Britain

David William Allan

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Book collections occupied a central place in eighteenth-century British culture. It is clear that changing economic conditions were making book-ownership progressively more widespread, even though detailed evidence for the collecting habits of individual contemporaries is often difficult to interpret. Some plainly collected on a grand scale; a few devoted themselves to gathering together rare and valuable works; but most owners could afford very few books indeed. Quite often a collection was shaped by professional needs, especially among clergymen, lawyers and medical men, though sheer inquisitiveness and personal interests usually mattered more. Collecting was also constantly affected by more or less explicit guidance from critics, booksellers and other authorities who insisted that the choice of appropriate texts was vital to the welfare of the individual and to the fate of wider society. These influences helped produce an emphasis in many collections on topographical and historical literature and on the English literary canon whose outlines were first being delineated in this period, although the threat of critical disapproval did not actually prevent many individuals from also acquiring modern narrative fiction. All of this probably helps explain the considerable prominence given to book collections and book-collecting as subjects for the eighteenth-century British novel.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-92
JournalYearbook of English Studies
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


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