Accepted Paper:

Counter-culture, escapism or the economy of shortage? Home libraries in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia  


Jirina Smejkalova (Prague College)
Roar Lishaugen (Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on our research in the materiality of books within the context of centrally controlled production and reception we shall explore the position of home libraries and domestic reading in this environment by using evidences referring to the Czech part of former Czechoslovakia as a case study.

Paper long abstract:

Domesticity, family and private sphere under the so-called real socialism were analysed as a space for producing and reproducing social and cultural capital, as a shelter providing room for relative independence and satisfaction unavailable in the public, as well as space of resistance that unavoidably lead towards the political turnovers of 1989 (Možný, 1991, 1996; True 2003). The few Czech research projects conducted on reading habits during the 1970s concluded that some of the most influential factors determining what books people bought were personal recommendations generated from informal networks (friends - 70% of respondents), borrowing books from friends' personal libraries, and books in one's family library. According to available data of 1970s, 50% of the respondents claimed to have a library with more than 100 books. (Hepner, 1975).

We thus suggest that home libraries were among the few institutions that guaranteed the circulation of the genres, titles, and authors that there were shortages of under the centrally controlled system. As such, the bookshelves in living rooms served as a medium of literary, cultural, and intellectual continuity with the pre-communist era. But were these bookshelves a counter-reaction to official propaganda? Or were they a reflection of escapism from the centrally controlled public sphere? Or was the obsession with books a form of consumer counter-reaction to the shortage of desirable goods on the market; were readers just stocking up with books in expectation of a shortage, just as they would stock up on toilet paper and sanitary napkins - 'just in case'?

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Books create a home: exploring books and reading practices as domestic symbols and rituals