In her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, English novelist and travel writer Frances Trollope caustically opined of America that “it’s the impression of many that the country is largely unlettered and unread. The immense exhalation of periodical trash which permeates to every cot and corner of the country,” she wrote, “is unquestionably one great cause of its inferiority.”
Calling into question Mrs. Trollope’s acerbic writings is an exhibition, “A Nation of Readers,” on display on the main floor of Geisel Library thorough June 30, 2013. The exhibition of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, newspapers and other materials from UC San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library illustrates the significance of reading in American life from the colonial period to the present.
Four threads of American cultural history are examined in the display: the diversity of audiences within the American reading public; the variety of reading materials sought by and available to those audiences; the way in which reading materials have been marketed to the American public; and the influence of certain American institutions that have promoted books and encouraged reading.
Within these categories are gems of American reading since the nation’s founding—Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of a French history text from 1791; the best-selling first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852; guides to the California gold mines of 1849, influential cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking, 1931, and popular books that had a profound effect on the American public such as Richard Wright’s Native Son, 1940.
A display of American newspapers (Mrs. Trollope’s “periodical trash”?) includes a copy of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen, July 4, 1893, printed on wallpaper during the siege of the city by General Ulysses Grant, and newspapers such as The Oriental of San Francisco, handwritten in both Chinese and English. A variety of paperback books are on display, including small format paperbacks created for servicemen in WWII that could be carried in a pocket, some in extremely small type on bad wartime paper.
Prominent in the display of books on the West is a copy of Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition, 1814, which includes a fold-out sectional map of their travels. A colorful display of “Books for Cooks” includes Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1869 guide to The American Women’s Home, and tiny Cakes, “a little cookbook for a little girl.”
And, of course, children’s readers, found in every American home—Little Women, The House of Pooh Corner, Horatio Alger, Bambi—and closest to home, a selection of volumes from the Dr. Seuss Collection, housed in the Mandeville Special Collections Library.