Compile a Reading History For Your Family

Have you ever considered doing a “reading history” for your family? What insights might you gain about your more recent family by learning more about what they read, and the newspapers and magazines they subscribed to.

Here’s a few examples from my own family.

It might not be surprising to learn that I was a regular subscriber of Civil War Times Illustrated by the age of twelve. When I was in kindergarten, I remember being highly offended when the teacher told me I could not check out books from the classroom to take home. I’d already been going to the public library for a year, where I could check out as many books as I could carry. No surprise to learn that today I am a librarian and have written a book on the Civil War.

Take my mother’s case. I ask her about some of her earliest memories of reading, and she tells me about sitting in her father’s lap, reading Uncle Wiggly cartoons together from the newspaper. She also has fond recollections of cutting out paper dolls from the same paper.

Her father got only an eighth-grade education in a country schoolhouse, but he was an avid lifelong reader, subscribing to Readers’ Digest, National Geographic, and Southern Living. In his later years, he read and re-read countless times Wild Western Scenes by J.B. Jones. He first discovered this book in his youth, pooling his money together with two or three other boys so they could purchase a copy and pass it around. Though that original is long gone, he recalled it so strongly in his 70s that my mother purchased him a copy from a used book dealer. He read it several times a year, always sharing with us some of the humorous scenes, especially where Joe and Sneak mistook a stump for a bear – one of his favorites, always rich with laughter.

Another treasured heirloom in our family is my grandfather’s very first book when he was a child, Nellie’s Christmas Eve, given to him by his mother. Though the cover is gone and it is tattered now after more than 100 years, the colors remain strong. The fact that it is one of only a very few relics from his childhood makes it special – and shows just how important reading was to him.

This is all a brief synopsis, but I have given you a short history of the reading habits of three generations of my family. What more could you learn about yours?

Consider – many newspapers had overtly political party affiliations, even into the twentieth century. What might you learn about your family’s political leanings if they subscribed to a conservative or progressive or even socialist newspaper?

Did they belong to any trade unions, labor or professional organizations? Or if they worked in a major industry or a large company, might there be industry magazines or company newsletters that they read? Might there be news tidbits about your family member in one of these resources?

This excerpt from The L & N Employes’ [sic] Magazine from April 1936 shares tidbits about men working in the Radnor Shops of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Some newspapers and magazines were geared to particular ethnic, racial, or religious groups, or printed in languages other than English. Were members of your family regular readers of these publications?

Were certain kinds of reading material considered “dangerous” or forbidden, often for political or religious reasons? (Did they read them anyway?)

How did reading vary among different members of the family? Did dad – or mom – have do-it-yourself home or auto repair manuals? What kind of cookbooks did grandma have? Maybe she had none at all, choosing to cook her own recipes rather than anything appearing in a store-bought book. Were books ever given as gifts on special occasions? What were these books, and what were the occasions? Were they inscribed by the gift-giver? Are there any books, besides the family Bible, that have been saved or passed down as heirlooms? Do they have stories attached to them that provide more information about their context, significance, and origin? Were dictionaries, encyclopedias, novels, or child-rearing books especially important to your family?

What can you learn about your family’s aspirations or tastes by the content of publications they had in the home? Popular Mechanics or Sports Illustrated? Woman’s Day or Vogue? What kinds of advertisements and articles appeared in these magazines? Are some of them still around the house, dog-eared or with articles torn out and saved? Did children have their own reading material? What about teens?

Were certain authors or subject matter a focus? My father, for instance, read the massive John Jakes “The Americans” series of novels in the 1970s, and also read historical non-fiction about World War II. I attribute part of my love of history to him.

This technique can be applied with equal success to examining other arts and cultural aspects of your family’s history. Perhaps your family was more musically or artistically inclined. In this case, you might want to ask more about particular musical styles or instruments, favorite songs, or a favorite piece of art, whether in the home or at a museum.

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the ordinary and everyday, especially with our own families. But taking a moment to explore the cultural history of your family history may reap unexpected and illuminating rewards.