Richard Hoggart was once described as "today's Ruskin" and is given to quoting Ruskin's maxim that "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way". It is this unadorned style that makes this work so gripping, holding a window up to working-class life while also asking, "What is the working class?"
Hoggart was born in the back-to-backs of Leeds to an impoverished widow mother who died when Hoggart was eight, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. He went to grammar school and secured university scholarships, rising to become an academic. In this book he skilfully threads together personal recollection with theoretical reflection, drawing on apt quotations from historical thinkers.
First published in March 1957, The Uses of Literacy feels just as resonant more than 50 years later, with an entertaining foreword by Hoggart's son, Simon, and a probing, passionate introduction by the writer Lynsey Hanley, who writes: "Without self-respect, [Hoggart] argues, you are open to the denigration and exploitation by those who see opportunities in human vulnerability." Divided into two halves, "An Older Order" and "Yielding Place to the New", the book vividly evokes the lives of working-class people between the 1930s and 1950s, capturing the causes and effects of rapid social transition. The book was originally to be titled "The Abuses of Literacy", and this is a pervasive theme. Hoggart attacks "mass publicists" for creating a "hedonistic group individualism", and tackles the way that popular culture is regarded by those who produce it.
Despite the social and economic transformations, thousands still recognise the life depicted – we should be closer to a classless society, but are not. This book holds reasons why that might be so – and the poignant chapter on the "scholarship boy" is not to be missed.
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