If I could give this book six stars out of five I would, it is an absolutely brilliant book, as illuminating as it is enjoyable. In essence it is the story of the 'Autodidact' (or 'self-taught') tradition of the British working classes which seemed to surface in the eighteenth century, become prominent in the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth.
A story of 'mutual improvement societies,' 'miners institutes,' 'self-help,' 'everyman libraries,' of men and woman at work at the loom or down the mineshaft with no formal guidance or tutoring making their own way through Dickens and Ruskin and Pilgrims Progress and Robinson Crusoe and whatever else they could lay their hands on.
A story that includes the story of the intellectual milleau that gave birth to the formation of the Labour Party and which had a profound influence on its subsequent development in the first half of the twentieth century, an answer as to why British Socialism owed more to Methodism than to Marxism.
The story of the effect of mass literacy, of Victorian educational reform, of the class-ridden, snobbish differentiation between 'highbrow,' 'middlebrow,' and 'lowbrow,' of the decline of the Autodidact tradition brought by increasing affluence, greater opportunities for higher education, new forms of media and rapid cultural obsolescence as 'cultural styles supercede one another with dizzying speed.'
The story of what it means to live in a country where Pop music employs more people than coal and steel and what kind of cultural shift that entails. The story of how the working class have been increasingly cut off from 'high' culture and what that entails.
In short, a history book of the highest order, one that cannot be reccomended enough, one that will truly provoke thought.