Age, Status, and Reading in the Eighteenth Century
Imagine walking through a bookstore that has no sections labeled ‘Teens,’ ‘Kids,’ ‘Fiction,’ ‘Romance,’ or ‘Thrillers,’ a bookstore that is instead divided up into sections labeled ‘Masters’ and ‘Everybody Else’—and one very small, very new room labeled ‘Children of the Aspiring Middle Class.’ Finding our way in the eighteenth-century book market is a similarly disorienting experience. In our own time, the difference between books for children and books for adults seems natural. It shapes the publishing and marketing choices of presses and the curricula of schools and universities, as well as the floor plans of libraries and bookstores, and the software through which we try to control access to the Internet. When we turn back a few centuries, however, writing, marketing, and readership look quite different, because age itself worked quite differently. While we may consider age differences to be fundamental and differences in social status to be relatively superficial, much writing up through the early eighteenth century sees social status as the fundamental difference, often imagining age itself in the likeness of social status. To this way of thinking, children are like servants and servants are like children. Subordinate status defines them both. John Locke’s enormously influential manual on how to bring up a young gentleman, Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), is rightly recognized for eventually playing an important role in the rise of democratizing impulses in educational theory. But this fate is an ironic one. In Locke’s own time, his book was remarkable instead for the rigour with which it attacks longstanding links between gentlemen’s children and their social subordinates.