The Maltese reader at the turn of the 20th century
by Anthony Zarb Dimech

Ever since mankind started putting ink to paper, manuscripts and books have been considered as one of the most valuable and prized treasures. From princes and kings to leaders of nations, both rich and the poor alike sought books and sometimes protecting them with their own lives and holding them as their greatest possessions.

During these early times, books were literally idolised not merely because of the long time it took to produce them (as the printing press had not been invented yet) but mainly for their contents.

A few historical illustrations demonstrate this. Ozyimandias, King of Egypt kept a precious library at his summer residence in Tebi and stored these in his finest of halls with the inscription at the entrance that read, “Light of the Soul”. This is recorded by Diodorus in his Book 1, 49.

Later, during the Middle Ages, when Constantinople fell under Ottoman rule (1453), many were those who considered this event as the “switching off” of the light of wisdom because written material took a downward trend.

When finally a peace agreement was on the verge of being signed between the European Kings and the Ottoman ruler of Constantinople, an issue broke out that could have sparked war again. Both sides could not agree as to who should keep either the manuscripts of Homer or of Erodite!

In London, during July 1906 a manuscript by the Ven. Bede titled

The Life of St Cuthbert written in 1180 fetched 1,500 sterling at an auction, a huge sum of money for those times. This was won by a certain Mr Quaritch who worked as a librarian.

Against this background, what would it have been like for a literate and an avid Maltese reader in 1906? What was available for the man in the street if he/she wanted to spend time pursuing this immortal hobby?

The answer is to be found by having a cursory glance at a list of publications issued between 1889-1906 in Malta for the purpose of reading as a pastime. Ninety-five booklets had been issued up to 1906 with Dic Xorti! of Annibale Preca being the first booklet. This list is provided at the end of the 1906 hard-bound compendium of Il Kotba tal Moghdija taz Zmien, published by Ganni Muscat of 213 Strada S. Orsla, Il Belt (213 St Ursola Street, Valletta).

The granting of the freedom of the press in 1839 led to several pleas protests and requests for a wider dissemination of teaching and a cultivation of a learning mentality for the whole population. The illiteracy rate had to be contained through teaching the population to read and write Maltese, English and Italian as well as the basics of Arithmetic. Freedom of press brought about the publication of a large number of newspapers in Italian, English and Maltese covering different aspects of Maltese life (social, religious, economic, political and cultural).

The results of the above policies bore fruit because by the second year of the publication of Il Kotba tal Moghdija taz Zmien in 1900, the publisher (Ganni Muscat) had to his credit 700 subscribers but in 1906 due to a rise in postage rates, decided to stop for some time but was adamant to continue his work by encouraging readers to spread the word around among friends and colleagues to buy and read these booklets which were sold at 2 pennies each. They were sold not only in Malta and Gozo but were also distributed on a limited scale to the Maghreb countries and also in Egypt where many Maltese migrants lived and worked.

Many prolific Maltese writers such as Emilio Lombardi produced many books printed as weekly issues (faxxikli in Maltese) which were sold and distributed door to door by the printing presses to their subscribers. On completion of the set, these issues were bound to form a complete book. These books varied from original novels set locally or in foreign countries to Biblical texts.

In his closing remarks to this 1906 edition, Alfons Maria Galea ({1861-1941}, a philanthropist who distinguished himself and was held in high esteem) emphasised that the country’s future depends on its up and coming youth and in turn this depends on the literature made available for them. He referred to the worst evil that could beset them is “contempt for wisdom”. He also remarked that it was within this scope of these publications to make them available to youths as a further contribution to their welfare.

The Church in Malta exercised strict censorship of both the written and printed word that was made available for the reading public and therefore one was selective as to what could be read. Parents were encouraged to impart wisdom through children story books. The written and printed word, (due to the absence of audio-visual aids) was loaded with vivid description and emotion to enhance the readers’ imagination and pleasure.

The above is a far cry from today’s cyber race where eBooks are taking over the hard copy and society seems to be moving to a paperless desk. We are truly spoilt for choice and our liberalistic and pluralistic society is also putting us at risk with the myriad of material, some of which breaks all the codes of censorship and Christian morality. Today, perhaps more than ever the Maltese reader and the reader in general must exercise his liberty with care in choosing that which instills real value and wisdom to the person.

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