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A profound attachment to the past; a delight in reading coupled with a practised disinclination to spend money on the habit; the rise of the paperback; the onrush of new media; an educational system increasingly keen on “set books”: the influences to which the mainstream book-fancier of the post-war period was subject are so various as to be barely quantifiable.As to how they worked their effect, anyone who tries to make sense of reading habits over the past 70 years or so will be struck by some of the patterns that emerge.As for the nature of Ms Yates’s attractions, I can only put it down to the almost Gothic atmosphere of a world without the advantages of modern medicine, where children died in droves, and an air of self-abnegation, a placid acceptance of whatever it was that her creator had planned for her, which even in the 1970s seemed as detached from contemporary life as a picture hat or a jar of hundreds and thousands.
“There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more”, Morrissey famously sang (in The Smiths’ “Handsome Devil”) 20 years later – a line that had me nodding my head in fanatical agreement for already, long ago, as a child of five, I had known it to be true.
The Penguin impact may very well have been at the upper end of the market – the really big sales were racked up by mass-audience successors such as Pan and Corgi – but no enquiry into the late-20th century reading habits of the young can ignore the influence of Lane’s juvenile imprint, Puffin.
As Francis Spufford has shown in , a whole generation of British children were raised on such Puffin bestsellers as Tove Jansson’s Moomin books or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of life on the 1870s US pioneer trail, and the values they indirectly preached – see the scene in Wilder’s , in which Pa Ingalls stops the local capitalist from profiting from the snow-bound Dakota township’s limited supply of wheat – went straight to the heart of the moral imagination.
The reluctance of even the most enthusiastic consumer actually to spend money on the literature of the day has had publishers wringing their hands since at least the mid-Victorian era.
As for the Common Reader’s preferential gaze this, most of the evidence suggests, was determinedly backward-looking.
Not long ago, in the course of a cross-examination by one of the music papers, the musician Florence Welch found herself faced with a question that many a celebrity, and quite a lot of ordinary people, are regularly called upon to answer: what was the most important book she had ever read?