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The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart
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The Uses of Literacy (1957)

by Richard Hoggart

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This is a book I've meant to read for years. It's a bit of an icon, because when it was published it was something genuinely new; an attempt to pin down the culture of the northern working classes and assess how general social changes have influenced it. As such, it was a pioneer of that much-derided and misunderstood area of academia, Media Studies.

It was first published more than fifty years ago, and we would expect that society has moved on a great deal since then and its relevance might be diluted. What seems surprising, however, is how much of this world of the dour, post-WW2 fifties is still recognisable in our own time. Step back fifty years from its publication and we are in Edwardian England; a world of horse-drawn carriages and gas-lights, of domestic servitude and deference. Step forward fifty years and there's still the motor-car and electricity, sensational tabloids, pop music and cinema. The government then as now embroiled in the Middle East, the teenagers much like our teenagers, and their young queen is now our elderly queen, but the same queen for all that. There is one big difference as a consequence of that similarity; when today's young people look back on the lives of their grandparents they (if they are honest) see themselves in similar conditions. In 1957, older people still had roots in that older world of deference and a more rural society with its distinctive regional culture and dialects. The mass media of the fifties changed all that, creating a more homogenised society. Was this a good thing? In some ways yes, but perhaps with its candy-floss ways it's a shallower one.

The Uses of Literacy is a classic and fully deserves to be so. What makes it especially valuable is that it is a serious academic work by a serious academic which is yet complete accessible to the lay reader. That is not something that can often be said these days. My copy is an original Pelican edition; it says a lot, which Professor Hoggart would no doubt have had something to say about, that there are no more Pelicans and the lay reader is now treated with less respect; today's equivalent would be presented by a celebrity in the way that those old learned television documentary series by Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark have been displaced by excitable comedians. I'm not sure that this doesn't reinforce what the book has to say.

( )
1 vote enitharmon | Jan 14, 2019 |
This is a book I've meant to read for years. It's a bit of an icon, because when it was published it was something genuinely new; an attempt to pin down the culture of the northern working classes and assess how general social changes have influenced it. As such, it was a pioneer of that much-derided and misunderstood area of academia, Media Studies.

It was first published more than fifty years ago, and we would expect that society has moved on a great deal since then and its relevance might be diluted. What seems surprising, however, is how much of this world of the dour, post-WW2 fifties is still recognisable in our own time. Step back fifty years from its publication and we are in Edwardian England; a world of horse-drawn carriages and gas-lights, of domestic servitude and deference. Step forward fifty years and there's still the motor-car and electricity, sensational tabloids, pop music and cinema. The government then as now embroiled in the Middle East, the teenagers much like our teenagers, and their young queen is now our elderly queen, but the same queen for all that. There is one big difference as a consequence of that similarity; when today's young people look back on the lives of their grandparents they (if they are honest) see themselves in similar conditions. In 1957, older people still had roots in that older world of deference and a more rural society with its distinctive regional culture and dialects. The mass media of the fifties changed all that, creating a more homogenised society. Was this a good thing? In some ways yes, but perhaps with its candy-floss ways it's a shallower one.

The Uses of Literacy is a classic and fully deserves to be so. What makes it especially valuable is that it is a serious academic work by a serious academic which is yet complete accessible to the lay reader. That is not something that can often be said these days. My copy is an original Pelican edition; it says a lot, which Professor Hoggart would no doubt have had something to say about, that there are no more Pelicans and the lay reader is now treated with less respect; today's equivalent would be presented by a celebrity in the way that those old learned television documentary series by Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark have been displaced by excitable comedians. I'm not sure that this doesn't reinforce what the book has to say.

( )
  enitharmon | Jan 14, 2019 |
I'm struggling with this one a bit. It is quite dated and patronising.

The interview at the end from 1990 gives really helpful context. I suggest reading the interview and then dipping into the book. ( )
  KWharton | Nov 29, 2018 |
I'm struggling with this one a bit. It is quite dated and patronising.

The interview at the end from 1990 gives really helpful context. I suggest reading the interview and then dipping into the book. ( )
  KWharton | Apr 11, 2018 |
The Uses of Literacy examines the effect of the mass media on the English working class. It begins with a description of the working class, focusing mainly on the North of England where Hoggart grew up in poverty, as well as the habits of popular culture and daily life up to a generation before this book was published.
This book was one of the founding texts of the field of Cultural studies, and I think an important work in sociology and the understanding of contemporary literature. Despite it being very much a book of the 1950s, and the examples being drawn from this era, it retains wide relevance to current trends and attitudes.
In the second half of the book, the changes in working class culture that have been brought about by the changes in popular literature are then discussed. We have various elements at play here, from the changing nature of the news press and magazines, to the Americanisation of society through pulp novels, music and film. This has largely replaced the traditional type of literature, music and entertainment that was generated by the working class and which came from their experience. What we have is then an increasingly homogenous commercial content imposed by large publishers, which aims for the lowest common denominator and does not reflect the genuine experience of being working class. Hoggart examines the effect of this on society, morals, and working class life.
Nearly every aspect of change that had occurred when this book was published (1957), has now happened to an even greater degree, and not only to the working class. Articles in magazines, internet portals, and in newspapers are increasingly fractionated into bite-sized pieces, aimed at those with short attention spans or little free time for understanding nuance, together with the exact same style of content on social media. The last chapter deals with the experience of those who like Hoggart have largely left the working class through what was then the scholarship system and into non-working class jobs, and what sense of anxiety or alienation can sometimes be caused by this.
It would have been fascinating would Hoggart have still been around to write an update to this study in current times. ( )
  P_S_Patrick | Oct 2, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Hoggartprimary authorall editionscalculated
Garcias, FrançoiseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Garcias, Jean ClaudeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Passeron, Jean-ClaudeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book is about changes in working-class culture during the last thirty or forty years, in particular as they are being encouraged by mass publications.
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