Revolting against the established book market

In June 2020, our new edited volume Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia: Actors, Arenas, and Aspirations (Routledge) will be published. In the weeks to come, we will publish a series of samples from the book. This one is based on Ragni Svensson’s chapter.

Due to reasons that were both political, cultural and dependent on processes on the national book markets, Western European book markets in the late 1960s and early 1970s experienced the emergence of a new phenomenon. Socialist bookstores and book cafes were gaining a foothold as information centres within the emerging New Left movement.

My chapter in Histories of Knowledge in Postwar Scandinavia analyses this phenomenon from a Scandinavian point of view and takes a closer look at the different venues. The book cafes in Lund, Stockholm, and Aarhus were important actors within a Scandinavian network of independent socialist book cafes and had much in common, not least in their view of knowledge dissemination.

These book cafes combined the manufacture and sale of different kinds of leftist media with a wide range of social activities. The breeding ground for the their activity was a thirst for knowledge as well as an experience of being excluded from the traditional channels of knowledge, such as bookstores, that they felt the need to revolt against. Functioning as mediators, marketers, and producers of books and other media material, and simultaneously presenting a scene for a wide range of outwardly activities, the book cafes were central knowledge arenas within the historical context of the New Left.

The concept of ‘public knowledge’ is crucial for the understanding of the knowledge circulation of the book cafes. They distributed a kind of knowledge that previously belonged to the universities in order to make it a public domain. At the same time, their activists traded their knowledge in practice through a series of positions regarding distribution methods, division of work and other knowledge-sharing activities.

Scholars researching the print and media cultures of the New Left have emphasized how the activities within the movement constituted a “counter-public” characterized by interactivity and co-determination, as well as by the critique of traditional mass media. They served as display windows for a new, alternative market for political literature and other media material, which existed partly outside the established institutions. As they stood independent from political groups, parties or institutions, they had the ambition to represent the whole spectrum of knowledge within the New Left, as well as to take active part in making it a public domain.


Ragni Svensson

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