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The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes Paperback – 16 Apr 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition edition (16 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300153651
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300153651
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In 1906 a famous survey of the reading habits of Labour MPs revealed that their preferences were the Bible, Walter Scott and John Ruskin, with hardly a hint of Karl Marx. Nearly a century later, Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes goes a long way to explaining why. His book is a mammoth survey of the autodidact, self-improving culture that emerged in Britain in the late 18th century and flourished for nearly 200 years through religious tract societies, mechanics institutes, trade union libraries and the Workers' Educational Association, until the end of the Second World War. Using workers' autobiographies, social surveys and opinion polls, Rose has produced a rich compilation of evidence, depicting an elite within the working class suffused with Macaulay, Milton and Shakespeare, and contemptuous of romance fiction, the tabloids and sensationalist melodrama. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Roe argues that this self-taught culture produced a working class wary of Marxism (because it was badly written), but also bored by imperialist adventure tales (because they gestured to a world of which workers knew nothing). It is not always easy to follow Rose in his journey through the working-class canon--he is determined to take us into every corner of his library--but it is worth sticking with him. The revelations from his research are fascinating, and his subtle tilts against fashionable post-modernist readings of reading are funny and well placed.--Miles Taylor. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'Rose's book... has the great virtues of clarity, wit and pungent opinion... it deserves its place alongside Richard Hoggart and Martin Weiner - alongside the writers who have yielded important new insights into our cultural ancestry and who shed light on ourselves.' --Ian Jack, 'Daily Telegraph'

'A superb book... I found the experience of immersion in it to be lastingly moving - like reading the poetry of John Clare, say, or Thomas Gray.' --Christopher Hitchens, 'The Times'

'Rose's account represents a historical triumph... fascinatingly and passionately told.' --A. C. Grayling, Independent on Sunday

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The masses, as they call them: Arnold sensed that the word erased personality. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Peter Hurst on 23 Mar. 2006
Format: Paperback
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.
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71 of 72 people found the following review helpful By "howellthomas" on 22 Feb. 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a marvellous book! The Author displays a remarkable insight into many aspects of working class culture. I was born and bred in Penrhiwceiber, a bustling village (mentioned on page 241), near Mountain Ash in the South Wales mining valleys. My parents and Grand Parents had also lived their lives there, and had taken active parts in the choral societies and local politics etc. As a child, I was brought up amidst the books they had collected to make private libraries, in fact, I now own them all as part of my own valued collection. I know from personal experience just how accurate this book is, and I can 'feel' the reality of the personal accounts of people trying to educate themselves, against the pressures of having to make a living in difficult circumstances. Many of those people lived up to the ideal that 'school simply gave you the foundation to enable life-long learning on your own account'. Also, apart from radical politics and communism, there were many people, who, by their private learning, were able to separate the 'SOCIAL' from the 'ism' in that word-label. They therefore interpreted SOCIALism as an outlook, a way of life and living, that embraced all that was good, noble and true. It is very easy to forget this today, when so much emphasis is put upon the 'ism' part of the word, that the word itself is regarded as a failed system and an irrelevance to modern life.
I am also immpressed by the author's willingness to include in various places, the attitudes of the 'not-so-bookish' and 'anti-learning' factions of the working classes who ridiculed and scorned the efforts of the autodidacts and their efforts.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By hbw VINE VOICE on 11 Aug. 2008
Format: Paperback
Why were working class schoolboys (and girls) addicted to boarding school stories? Why did a Birmingham theatre have to put on extra performances of Shakespeare to prevent a riot? What did working class people think about foreigners? How did miners and labourers with little formal education end up as cabinet ministers?

In this fascinating book, historian Jonathan Rose turns detective to find out what working class people read, thought, listened to and talked about in 19th and early 20th century Britain. Here you will meet shepherds who exchanged books by leaving them in the niches of walls, miners who debated philosophy and literature in the depths of the earth, weavers who read as they worked and office boys who devoured poetry when they were meant to be working.

As well as the experience of individuals, we find out how this passion for learning led to the development of a parallel universe of education ranging from miners' institutes to the WEA and Ruskin College.

We also discover what those people who benefited from the 1870 Education Act actually thought of their schools and how effective (or ineffective) a centrally inspired syllabus was in producing compliant end economically useful citizens of the growing British Empire.

This is a must for any family historian whose great-grandfather left school at 12 yet somehow managed to master calculus or classical Greek. Book lovers will love it and it should be compulsory reading for those in control of education in 21st century Britain.

(A word of warning: at 460 pages, this is a hefty read, but it's quite possible to "dip in" and read an odd chapter, or even a section of a chapter, on its own).
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