What do people read? Where do they get their reading materials? When do they read, and how? What social and economic factors determine their reading experiences? These questions are addressed by the History of Reading, an academic discipline that studies the practice of reading as a “sociological phenomenon,” i.e., a process resulting from the interaction of a number of social variables (class, gender, ethnicity, education, age, etc.) along with the material conditions pertaining to the publication, distribution, reception and survival of books and other reading matter, in print or electronically.
What did the Actons read in the 1920s? How can we trace their reading practices by examining their library at Villa La Pietra? What can their books tell us about the world they lived in?
Framing the Questions
First of all, we need to locate the Acton family in their historical, cultural and social context. Sources such as Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) or the Villa La Pietra Guestbook, tell us that they were active members of the Anglo-American community in Florence and also part of a larger group of international expatriates. Yet what distinguished them–and others such as the Berensons or the Dodges–from the majority of foreign residents, was their wealth and affluence, as witnessed by their beautiful home at Villa La Pietra and by the other villas and grounds which constitute the NYU Florence campus today. In their Library, we can thus expect to find a mirror of their upper-class lifestyle and international culture, along with the personal tastes and interests of each family member, and books that were popular among the majority of readers in their day.
Analyzing the Collection
In her study Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), based on the research she carried out ih the 1920s, Q.D. Leavis analyzed reading practices in Britain between the two World Wars. The results of her study suggested that the majority of British readers in Twenties chose to read fiction over nonfiction. What were the bestsellers in English and American fiction at the time? Are any of these books present in the La Pietra Library? Did the Actons read what most of their contemporaries read?
In order to identify 1920s bestsellers, we need to examine a number of different sources. On the one hand, we may consider online resources such as Daniel Immerwahr’s website “The Books of the Century”, in which he lists the top ten bestsellers in English and American fiction (and nonfiction) for each year of the 20th century, as recorded by the American news magazine Publishers Weekly. On the other, we need to bring our research closer to its object, the Acton family at Villa La Pietra, and ask ourselves which bestsellers were read by the English-speaking community in Florence during the 1920s.
Luckily, we have an amazing resource that can help us answer this question: the Gabinetto Vieusseux, a cultural institution founded in Florence in 1819 as a circulating library that catered to the interests of foreign residents and visitors by providing books, newspapers and journals in various European languages. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Gabinetto also functioned as a landmark of Italian intellectual life, and today it continues to be one of the city’s major cultural institutions.
By comparing the Vieusseux’s First Supplement to the English Catalogue for the years between 1915 and 1926, the catalogue of its historical library, and the lists of 1920s bestsellers derived from Publishers Weekly, we can thus begin to surmise which novels were popular in Florence among its English-speaking readers.
Did the Actons read these books? From the research conducted so far, out of the 40 novels listed by Publishers Weekly for the period between 1920 and 1924, 20 were available in the Vieusseux Library, 9 of which were also at Villa La Pietra. Interestingly, the 20 bestsellers that were not at the Vieusseux were also not part of the La Pietra collection. These data suggest that during the early Twenties the Actons were significantly attuned to the literary tastes of the Anglo-Florentine community with respect to bestselling fiction. Further support comes from the presence of two Vieusseux catalogues in the La Pietra Library–the Catalogue of the English books (1819-1915) and the G.P. Vieusseux’s reading rooms and circulating library; catalogue of the English books (1896).