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The Book as Print Culture: 20th-21st Century

readThe first half of the twentieth century was marred by world war and an emphasis on materialism and big business.

Print communication had matured to the point where society regarded printed books as accurate, authors as authoritative, and copies of book as identical regardless of the location or printing.

As print culture has matured, society has come to regard books as predominately consistent and accurate. While the copyright laws continue to evolve, they provide protection to creators without unduly limiting access to information.

The end of the century was marked by the beginning of a shift in formats from predominately print books to a growing emphasis on electronic reading. However, the print book is still alive and well according to a 2017 Gallup Poll.

Read Rumors of the Demise of Books Greatly Exaggerated, Gallup Poll.


Self-Improvement Books

The Progressive Era reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an onslaught of books related to purity, honesty, and good health. From how-to and grooming books to advice and hygiene texts, self-improvement books became very popular.

The image below is from a manual on "social hygiene" from the early 20th century.


Pierce, Jennifer Burek (2011). What young readers ought to know: the successful selling of sexual health texts in the early twentieth century. Book History, 14, 110-136. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Naturalism was a literary movement from the 1880s through the 1940s focusing on the connection between heredity, the environment, and social conditions. This literature explored the dark side of life including corruption, disease, prejudice, and violence.

Books like The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) brought these issues to the forefront of society.

Modernist Literature

Modernist literature was driven by an effort to overthrow traditional writing techniques. A growing interest in sociology, psychology, and the operation of the human mind led to new approaches such as stream of consciousness books like Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce (1882-1941) and Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf (1882-1921). Modernist authors like William Faulkner (1897-1962) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) continued publishing into the middle part of the 20th century.

Thoughts about utopian societies and the impact of technologies led to many works in the area of fantasy and science fiction.


In Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction, John Sutherland (2007) explores the notion of "bestsellers". He begins with a quote by George Orwell from Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,

"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is 'good'. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that - for instance - Warwick Deeping is 'bad'. Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."

Sutherland goes on to explore what makes a book a bestseller pointing out that many of the best sellers of the 20th century didn't go on to become what many consider "literary classics." Sutherland concludes that a bestseller reflects the interests and needs of the period when it was published. Using the top-selling novel of 1923 Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton as an example, Sutherland (2007) stresses

"that the discriminating reader of that year had James Joyce's Ulysses, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, and D.H. Lawrence's Aaron's Rod to choose from... However absurd it seems to the modern reader, Atherton's novel reflect, and dramatizes, contemporary anxiety about women's freedoms; as definitively as did Bridget Jones's Diary in the 1990s.. this hand-in-glove quality is inextricably linked with the ephemerality of bestsellerism."

Bestsellers provide book historians with a snapshot into a particular time and place. They show what publishers chose to sell and what consumers chose to buy.

Rare Books

Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It (2013) by Travis McDade explores the rare book trade in New York during the 1920s and 1930s.

Value Messages

During the 1930s, a growing number of liberal and radical authors called for social revolution. However, David Welky (2008) notes that an equally strong movement in mainstream print culture shaped a message affirming conservative middle-class values. For instance, the character of Superman evolved from a radical outsider to a spokesman for the people.

US Government Projects

Beginning in the Great Depression, the United States government became actively involved in producing books and booklets. They created a program called The Federal Writers' Project as part of the Works Project Administration. Out of this project came state travel guides and new authors. Go to to explore some of these works.


World War II

During World War II comic book authors such as Stan Lee were hired to produce manuals in the comic form. They also produced propaganda pieces and comics with military themes. It was thought that these attractive, easy-to-read documents would encourage soldiers to read the manuals. It worked! After the war, comics continued to be produced for goverment agences.

Below are some examples:


tryTry It!
Explore a few World War II era comics. When they returned from war, many soldiers continues to enjoy the comic format.

Cold War

During the Cold War era, the United States used government publications as a way to combat Soviet propaganda.

Read Barnhisel, Greg (2010). Cold warriors of the book: American book programs in the 1950s. Book History, 13, 185-217. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Over the next several decades, they sponsored many more publishing projects. In addition to books related to travel, a wide range of other government and university-sponsored works such as Fallout Protection (1961) from the Department of Defense and Living and Working on a Farm (1943) from the University of Illinois.

Postmodern Literature

Postmodern literature emerged after World War II as a reaction against earlier social constructs and literary approaches. The themes commonly include irony, intertextuality, metafiction, and distortion. Books like Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) fall into this category.


Underground Press

In the 1960s, the underground press appeared as an alternative to large printing houses. From comic books to political commentary, this wave of publishing reflected the cultural and political unrest in society.

In Smoking Typewriters : The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillian (2011) noted that new, cheaper printing techniques democratized publishing allowing the underground movement to flourish. Although technically illegal, the books often contained subversive content and were sold through gallery openings and coffeehouses.

mediumCommunication and Information Theory

Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001) along with Warren Weaver (1894-1978) published The Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1949. It explored technical, semantic, and influential aspects of communication including how messages are transmitted, convey meaning, receive meaning, and are interfered with through noise. This book laid the foundation for information theory and provided the foundation for the digital revolution.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) was a Canadian known for his work in communication theory. He coined the term "the medium is the message" and "global village." His works The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967) had a tremendous impact on thinking about the role of new media in society.

Shift Toward Digital Collections and Electronic Books

Although print books continue to be produced and impact society, the number of books produced is decreasing primarily due to the use of the Internet for information.

As information is increasingly available anytime, anywhere through digital sources, place-based information sources such as books become less essential. However new questions and concerns arise. In a placeless society, it is more difficult to connect information with their origins.

A shift from print books to electronic books has occurred in the 21st century. Public, school, and academic libraries have all experienced a dramatic increase in e-book usage.

According to the Digital Inclusion Survey (2014), 89.5% of public libraries offer access to e-books.

Read Ebook Usage Reports in U.S. Public Libraries and Ebook Usage Reports in School (K-12) Libraries. Think about the shifts over the past few years. Speculate on the future of ebooks.

try itTry It!
Skim Paul, Lissa (2011). Book 2.0, 1(1), 7-20. IUPUI students can view the article online. Notice how the author explored key terms associated with the children's book trade "then and now".

Think about a topic of interest. How could you use this approach with an area of your own interest?


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