"In the 1500s, English law barred common people from reading even the Bible. England's rigid class system was grounded in the conviction that commoners were incompetent to think for themselves. The upper classes maintained a closely guarded monopoly on the knowledge required to interpret law, politics and religion for the lower orders...But as literacy grew, many working people began to yearn for intellectual independence. To guide their quest, they chose the very books that the elite had appropriated as their own: Homer, Virgil, Plutarch and Bacon.
"In the 1800s, weavers often read Shakespeare as they worked at their looms...shepherds "maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated crannies in boundary walls." In mines and factory towns, informal discussion groups sprang up....
"What did England's common people find in the classics? ...the tools they needed to begin to answer...life's most basic question: "What is it that's going on here?"
"Less-than-great books can't perform this function. Ordinary works of fiction, for example, tend to follow stereotyped formulas that limit their value. But the classics... "offer a hundred ways of understanding the world, and a hundred plans for changing it." Over time, British workers who read Milton and Locke began to grasp that they deserved educational and political equality. Eventually, they demanded -- and got -- both. "