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Buying and Borrowing Books: Book Consumption In Late Nineteenth-Century Sweden (pp 121-154)

Henning Hansen


How did Swedish readers in the late nineteenth century acquire reading materials, and what books were the most popular? And how did their reading preferences change over time?

A few unique, recently discovered sources, consisting of sales’ and borrowers’ ledgers from three different institutions – a parish library, a commercial lending library and a bookshop – can help to answer these questions. These three institutions represented key elements of the Swedish book trade, and together they served customers from the entire social spectrum, from farmhands, blacksmiths and labourers to bishops, noblemen and literary critics.  

Generally speaking, the Swedish reading public of the late nineteenth century was divided into two groups: those who bought books, and those who borrowed them. The bookshop was where all the latest books could be found, and Strindberg, Ibsen and Daudet were among the best-selling authors. The parish library, by contrast, had only a limited range of fiction – mainly written by an earlier generation of authors – and primarily acquired books that would enlighten and educate, rather than entertain. However, the members of the parish library preferred fiction above all, and over the years they transformed from omnivorous to discerning readers. The commercial lending library, which specialised in novels, attracted many bookworms, with some people borrowing from fifty to one hundred books a year, very often historical novels.

Different customer groups seem to have had different literary preferences. The study shows for example that female customers of the bookshop tended to buy books on women’s emancipation, and preferred Tolstoy to Strindberg – who was the male customers’ favourite. And while romantic and gothic stories, and the so-called “city mysteries” by Eugène Sue were hugely popular among the students and the artisans of the commercial lending library, they aroused little interest among the bookshop’s customers.

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