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The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

4.3 of 5 stars 4.30  ·  rating details  ·  100 ratings  ·  18 reviews
This prizewinning book provides an intellectual history of the British working classes from the pre-industrial era to the twentieth century. Drawing on workers' memoirs, social surveys, library registers, and more, the author discovers how members of the working classes educated themselves, which books they read, and how their reading influenced them.
Paperback, 544 pages
Published January 11th 2003 by Yale University Press (first published 2001)
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Community Reviews

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A monumental book, full of the most amazing new insights. A sort of intellectual roller coaster ride through the period 1850 to 1950, mainly focused on Britain but with asides to the US and Europe. Instead of focusing on what was being written, he focuses on what was being read, using information from working class memoirs, public library loan records and book sales. I grew up near the South Wales coalfield which still had the aftermath to its history of working class passionate drive for educat ...more
Meticulously research, this provides a reservoir of source material to follow up. The highly readable themes cohere nicely. There are revelations of our near working class history in every chapter, signposts to hundreds of other destinations. Obviously, a work like this has to be severely edited, and there is no room for the author to develop ideological critiques. However, despite the odd nod in the direction of balance, it's clear that Rose wants to evoke a past age when things were 'better', ...more
Oct 19, 2007 Sharon rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Those interested in 20th century British social history
Shelves: history
This is a very readable, absolutely fascinating look at what the British working classes were reading and learning from the 1700s to the mid-20th century. The author discusses what books and plays were most popular among with working classes, different traditions of schooling, the libraries and self-improvement societies established by Welsh miners...I could go on and on. The title sounds dry, but the book is full of surprises and well worth a look.
Stu West
I'm not going to try recommending this because let's face it, who apart from me is going to be demented enough to want to read a 500-odd page book about the reading habits of long-dead British workers? I will say that I loved it, found it constantly engaging and insightful, and that I particularly liked the way the author put the boot into Marx, Joyce and various other political and literary sacred cows.
The enthralling story of how weavers, navvies, and clerks struggled over two centuries to educate themselves and become conversant in literature, philosophy, politics, science, and the arts, until their ultimate defeat at the hands of the hipsters.
A worthwhile and fascinating topic presented in a sometimes crisp and accessible, memorable manner, and, at other times--the majority of times--presented in a dull, plodding, unnecessarily dense manner.
My wife: "What are you reading?"
Me: "A book called, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes."
Wife: "Sounds thrilling."
Me: "It is!"

And, it really is thrilling in its way. This is a fascinating book, crammed full of quotes and anecdotes: maids dreaming of becoming novelists and Welsh miners quoting long passages of poetry in the darkness of the pit. Rose lets the "working classes" speak for themselves largely via a vast amount of research collected from published and unpublished mem
Over 10 years since I first read it, this book is still an engaging debate on the validity of education for all, not just the social elite, and the innate desire to learn. It is also a helpful reminder that we shouldn't become too complacent about the advantages that modern education can confer, or the erosion by present-day governments, anxious to mark changes on the education system and do away with meritocracy in favour of those who can afford to pay the fees.

It also made me remember my mater
Humbling (methodologically for the historian), and impressive (in its scholarship for that same historian): me in both cases. Through detailed analyses of things such as library stock and lending records, diaries and journals, Rose has revealed an extremely rich world of working class erudition, auto-didacticism, and scholarship. Here are groups of miners in a reading circle exploring Kant and the big issues of Enlightenment philosophy. Importantly, Rose reveals a working class intellectual life ...more
I especially like a few thoughts from this book: "One cannot think without using some kind of frame, no more than a computer can work without a program... literature, by suggesting a wealth of alternative perspectives on the world, would inevitably subvert ideology. As (Matthew) Arnold phrases it, culture can liberate us from 'system-makers and systems' by 'turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.' " And an observation about how readers selected books (with a ...more
Jackson Cyril
A book full of astonishing information; I never thought I'd enjoy reading workers's memoirs-- an army of which Rose marshals to support his theses in this work. I had no idea that the working classes of previous generations read so voraciously, and how many of these autodidacts (among them future Labour leaders) found inspiration in the classic Western authors (Milton, Shakespeare, Austen, Scott, Carlyle etc) instead of modernist trash. Really, really cool stuff, and written in highly readable p ...more
Kaycee Roberts
I never write reviews, but I know this is an odd book to add to my shelf and so I wanted to clarify. (I usually leave most academic or research-based nonfiction off of my list here.) Rose's argument is tenuous in some cases, and he seems to use evidence rather selectively in support of his thesis at certain places, but this is an absolutely fascinating read. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the real effect of Victorian industrialism in Britain.
Chas Bayfield
THis is an inspirational book about poor people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps; people who didn't leave it to fate or governments to help them along but who took matters into their own hands and put in the hours after working a long day. There's a massive amount of research and some great success stories of people who rose from lowly beginnings to positions of power and wealth. A kind of British American Dream!
A book which changed my life. The working man got a ravenous desire to read nd they read anything and everything to get that skill ability. The Bloomsbury Set under Virginia Woolf suppressed the new Intelligentsia that resulted.
An immensely readable and fascinating account of what working class people have read over the generations, and why. I found it very hard to put down, which is saying something for what is essentially an academic book.
An avalanche of evidence that in the preTV world of the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the working class had a thriving self-education ethos, centred on the classics.
Jules Evans
I loved this. Fascinating and heartening to read about self-education and mutual improvement clubs in the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries. Brilliant book.
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