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The Pleasures of the Imagination: English…

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth… (1997)

by John Brewer

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And one of the pleasures is reading! A study of the role of culture in eighteenth century (mostly) English society. A study, in fact, of an explosion and an exciting one but the commercial and social explosion rather more than the individual cultural one as publications, prints, music and theatre became available to a wider and wider part of the population and were no longer the preserve of the aristocracy.

This was the time of the start of the Industrial Revolution and in some ways this is a cultural revolution. Books, newspapers, pamphlets, prints (as in etchings) and printed music were the subjects of technical change too and became increasingly cheaper. Theatres could get larger and so seats were cheaper.

It is not a sedate ‘eighteenth-century’ story. Raucous theatres, dubious pleasure gardens and even more dubious printed works feature, but so do the first novels, Handel’s Messiah and Pope’s translations of Homer.

Brewer is in many ways showing how British culture created itself through the market which is an interesting thought in itself. Britain lacked a monarchy with the means or inclination to champion or fund culture to any extent. Aristocrats lacked the inclination, perhaps because a high percentage of their time was spent in the country and they tended more to the huntin and shootin.

So the concert hall was invented and anyone who could buy a ticket could go to a public performance instead of one in a duke's palace. Or take 'books'. Once the writer had to rely on patronage from the very rich and powerful. This changed. There was an industry called Grub Street. You come across it in The Dunciad but Brewer itemises it. It was an arm of the publishing business. Booksellers/publishers saw openings in the market – because a rival bookshop had published a successful bestseller or a topic was very hot – and employed individuals or teams from Grub Street to compile, write, plagiarise or assemble something that could be sold. The London bookseller/publisher would sell them in his own outlet(s) and booksellers outside London would be constantly on the lookout for the fashionable or saleable. Yes, this is how Johnson's Dictionary was created. The result was perhaps not the more common instantly forgettable work but the process had a lot in common with all of the others. Like any successful market it created its own expansion. New booksellers opened in London as others went bankrupt or retired. They all had more and more books to sell. In the provinces each town wanted to emulate London's culture. So they had not only bookshops selling the latest books and prints but Meeting Rooms where concerts could be held or music societies could assemble using the printed music now available. In the larger cities a theatre would be opened.

And so 'culture' expanded – the pleasures of the imagination were spread about more widely. Some people may only have been following much of it for reasons of fashion but Brewer quotes contemporaries who enjoyed the delights of culture and sought it out for its own sake. Of course much of it was ephemeral – but as today a few works of permanent were spread across the land to all the middling classes. It led to the rise of the novel, the play, the oratorio, concerts and more which continued long after the end of the century.
  Caomhghin | May 13, 2013 |
You happen to have some spare time one mid-afternoon and so you decide to pop into your local bookseller.

Meandering through the history section, you come upon this thick volume: "The Pleasures of the Imagination", by John Brewer. Humm! Why, this should be quite a book, You think (You are of course a fan of Boswell's Life of Johnson, the novels of Jane Austen and Henry Fielding, and other 18th century works)...

Indeed, such a very promising book--the culture of 18th century Britain, the plays, the critics, the booksellers, the rivalries, the ribaldry, the rabble. You pull the book from its place upon the shelf and open to the first page. How shalt the author pull the reader into this wonderful, dynamic world of art?

"High culture is less a set of discrete works of art than a phenomenon shaped by circles of conversation and criticism formed by its creators, distributors, and consumers."

Oh, uhm, yes...come to think of it, you have a couple shirts to be picked up at the dry cleaner's...

Yet another academic writer who has mistaken a work of history meant for popular consumption with some esoteric treatise on quantum mechanics. The info's there, but the means of conveyance is sadly lacking... ( )
1 vote uncultured | Aug 10, 2008 |
excellent ( )
  billatd3 | Apr 14, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374234582, Hardcover)

John Brewster's landmark book shows us how British artists, amateurs, entrepeneurs, and audiences created a culture that is still celebrated for its wit and brilliance.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:05 -0400)

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