Forgotten Readers by Elizabeth McHenry (thoughts)
As a general rule, I love books about bookish topics. As another general rule, I love history that looks at the day-to-day lives of everyday people, especially those who are normally pushed to the margins. So when I heard about Forgotten Readers by Elizabeth McHenry, which looks at historical (1830-1940) African American readers, I couldn’t resist requesting it from the library right away!
Happily, it was full of just the kind of information I’d hoped for. Starting in the antebellum North, McHenry looks first at the reading habits of free blacks and then at the black press that supported those habits, a connection that while obvious in retrospect I wasn’t expecting to be in a book about reading. In the post Civil War era, McHenry looks at how literacy and reading plans became tied to blacks becoming full citizens and bettering themselves and their race, as a kind of intellectual counterargument to widely held racist assumptions. Infantilising black people has always been a key element of white superiority, and in the age of Booker T. Washington, literary societies became as much moral philosophy clubs as places to discuss books. I especially liked that McHenry devoted a whole chapter (there are only five in the book, other than introduction and epilogue) to black women readers during this time period, as it was an era of momentous change for women. McHenry finally turns to the post-WWI period, including the Harlem Renaissance, before tying everything in to contemporary publishing, in an era that as we know still favours white authors and imagines that putting a white model on the cover of a book with a main character of colour will ‘appeal more’ to readers and thus sell more copies. I would have liked an even stronger analysis of the white privilege present in publishing, but given McHenry’s subject, I understood that she instead focused primarily on book clubs.
Forgotten Readers, and books like it, are so important because they challenge the way that history is generally thought of. African Americans, at least in school textbooks, are often portrayed as completely lacking in agency. To learn about presses and literary societies and individuals working to change their society through books counteracts all of that, making African Americans firmly subjects instead of objects. I’m thrilled that McHenry wrote this, so that I could peek in on the lives of past readers, who were both radically different from and quite similar to myself, and I look forward to seeing what books she writes in the future. I especially love reading about people connecting over books since the twenty-first century version has been so important to my own life! ;)
That being said, while I found the topic fascinating and McHenry’s treatment strong, I will say it lacked a bit of, well, spark. For me at least, it was a solidly good read, rather than the kind of book that makes me want to abuse my exclamation point key and shamelessly gush to everyone I know. If you have even the slightest curiosity about the topic, definitely pick this one up. There’s a lot to learn, and much of it is fascinating. But if you lack self motivation, McHenry’s not the kind of nonfiction writer who sets out to entrance the reader. Know what I mean?