Books contain a deadly and secret poison. Many a young man has been destroyed by reading a single volume."

Such was the solemn warning of Joel Hawes in his Lectures to Young Men, on the Formation of Character (1829). It is characteristic of 19th-century Britain that, even when someone wanted to warn against reading, he would do so by publishing a book. Reading was dangerous because it was powerful—and therefore, if the books were edifying, reading could also be a strong weapon for good.

The Victorian age was the great age of reading. In 1815, 58 percent of men and 81 percent of women were illiterate. By the end of the century, however, 95 percent of both men and women were literate. On Sundays the Victorian masses often learned to read through the free schooling provided by local churches. State education was enacted in 1870—pushing literacy rates higher.

Victorians often came to faith by reading. In the past, printed material had been too expensive for the poor. Now, the Religious Tract Society flooded the nation with cheap, edifying literature. Salvation how-to manuals were widely disseminated and highly effective. Newman Hall's Come to Jesus reached a circulation of four million copies. J. A. James, author of The Anxious Inquirer After Salvation Directed and Encouraged, received a letter from one locality where 27 people had been converted through the circulation of a single copy of his book.

New doubts and new doubters

The Victorians also lost their faith through reading. "Infidel" literature was also printed in cheap editions in order to reach the working classes. New fields of learning sometimes seemed to undercut traditional religious beliefs. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species (1859) sat uneasily with the ...

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