There is little evidence for the impact of literature on young female readers in the late nineteenth century. Most studies focus upon the content of nineteenth-century books and magazines, highlighting female readers' acceptance or rejection of contemporary discourses on femininity and domesticity. This paper uses evidence from the unpublished diary of one young woman to emphasize the importance of reading as an activity in its familial and social, rather than literary and intellectual, context. We argue that some young women had access to books from a wide range of genres, but that reading was often relatively uncritical and apparent 'messages' were not internalized. For many, the significance of reading lay in its flexibility, fitting easily into a domestic routine, and in the opportunities for privacy, independence and narrative absorption offered by the activity itself.