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Books Before and After

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

By Leah Price
Princeton, 2012

When is a book a book, and when is it something more? What is it that matters about books, and where is that meaning made? Why, and how, do we value books? And how has the meaning of books changed: what did books mean in an era experiencing the rapid rise of print, and what do they mean to us now as we shift into the digital age?

These are all questions raised by Leah Price’s engaging and incisive How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Right from the front cover image of roses crafted from torn pages of books, Price challenges us to move beyond thinking about books simply as something to be read—to consider instead their multiple uses and abuses as physical objects.

Focusing on Britain in the nineteenth century, when the increase of printed material was both an exciting and troubling phenomenon, Price traces accounts of books’ physical manifestations in a wide range of literary and historical sources. She finds that books are much more than just reading material. Books form barriers, isolating a reader from those around them, but they also build bridges when given as gifts or left as inheritances. Books can be a burden, their physical form literally weighing down the encumbered reader, but they can be equally disposable, their raw materials readily reused or recycled. Books cause physical harm when thrown as weapons, but can become damaged even through the simple act of reading. Their bindings signify fashion, status, and wealth, while their pages can be put to endless mundane uses everywhere from the kitchen to the outhouse.

Price’s interest is in representations of books in literature, so rather than conducting a material history of Victorian artefacts, she presents us with interpretations of a wide range of literary and historical sources, from novels by Trollope, Dickens, Eliot, and Collins, to religious tracts, journalism and letters. Readers are everywhere in Victorian literature, but Price shows us that more often than not it isn’t what the characters are reading but the things that are done with the book that is of most importance. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, begins with the young Jane absorbed in a copy of Bewick’s History of British Birds. But how much reading is actually going on here? At first she’s just “turning the over leaves” of the book while looking out the window at the dreary winter afternoon. Once she settles down to give the book her full attention, she still isn’t that concerned with the text: Jane has deliberately chosen a book full of pictures and it’s these that absorb her, each picture prompting imaginative wanderings to form stories of Jane’s own creation.

But the book’s most lasting effects come when Jane is discovered by her cousin John Reed who decides to teach her a lesson for “rummaging his bookshelves”:

I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it.

It’s not reading, but being hit by a book that kick-starts Jane’s self-development, spurring into action the strong will that will be so central to the rest of the novel. Through Price’s interpretation we come to see books as powerful agents: “these novels cast books”, she writes, “as weapons of the strong,” such that books become “a pawn in familial power struggles.”

Price’s original commentary on classic nineteenth-century novels makes for refreshing readings of familiar texts, but the true delight of her study comes in the expansive range of material that she covers: the idea of “the book” encompasses everything from the Bible to junk mail. This makes for an expansive survey that constantly entertains the reader with new and surprising material, and creates provocative juxtapositions between various types of book. The unlikely pairing of junk mail and religious tracts, for example, reveals some unexpected comparisons and raises interesting questions about the value given to different types of printed material. Price traces how the cheapening of print production was accompanied by new forms of distribution – the secular postal service and religious tract society – that allowed for the proliferation of printed material “at the expense of someone other than its end user.” Books were no longer just valuable items purchased at the reader’s choice: advertising circulars, chain letters, postal scams and religious tracts could be given to, or foisted upon, the reader. In this context, Price suggests, “the book came to feel like a burden […] receiving a book now connoted powerlessness as often as privilege.” To the twenty-first century reader overwhelmed by both print and digital texts, this might sound like a familiar scenario, and indeed, quoting Harriet Martineau who “enjoyed few things more in life than the certainty of being out of the way of the post,” Price notes there’s a strong echo of “early twenty-first-century bloggers reveling in the lack of wireless on airplanes.”


Old Newspaper Reading Room, British Library

Price not only expands our idea of “the book” but also opens up our understanding of “the reader.” Too often, she argues, we fall back on a simplistic distinction between readers of the text – i.e. the words on the page – and handlers of “the book,” i.e. the material object. Thus we identify reading as the intellectual pursuit of the middle classes, and characterize manual interaction with the book as the experience only of those with too much or too little money – the rich collectors who unduly fetishize the look of the book, or the poor who value the book for its useful raw materials. These assumptions obscure just how many people were using, interacting with and reading books in Victorian Britain.

Through Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Price presents us with a more complex picture. Paper proliferates throughout Mayhew’s observation of the London slums, with books at the end of their life-cycle being re-used in many and varied ways: second-hand books are collected and sold, newspapers form material for wrapping, padding and lining, and wastepaper is turned into flypaper. Here the value of books resides not in what they contain but in what they can do or become: as Price presents it, Mayhew’s London Labour is itself a manual of “how to do things with books.” The poor book-users are as skilled as the rich collectors, indifferent to what the text contains but sharply attuned to the different materials from which books are made: “servants continued to eyeball how much animal gelatin had been used to ‘size’ a page […] they knew, therefore, which pages were suitable for sealing food and which for absorbing dirt.”

But these manual uses of the book don’t negate or preclude reading: we hear the tale of an unemployed cabinet-maker whose only reading material is “the book-leaves in which he received his quarter of cheese, his small piece of bacon or fresh meat,” and so his wife “schemed to go to the shops who ‘wrapped their things from books,’ in order that he might have something to read after his day’s work.” Material wrappings are turned back into reading material, and (un)wrappers are revealed as readers.

Price raises a host of questions that reach beyond the Victorian period to contemporary reading practices and values, both on a social and individual level. As individual readers, we might typically take the materiality of the books we read for granted, thinking only about the content rather than our interactions with the physical object and perhaps never considering the meanings that are created through our handling of books. Many times reading Price I paused to reflect on the form of the book I was reading: dust jacket removed and set aside so it wouldn’t get scuffed, the small delight I’d had in opening untouched pages, and coming across occasional pieces of lint from paper packaging, the only traces of the book’s journey from Canada to England – a journey which, taking a whole six weeks, raised some doubts about the extent of improvements to postal networks over the last 150 years. At times the book was a physical burden and my hand ached from holding it; it acted as “barrier” when I sat reading in a coffee shop, cut off from the world as I became absorbed in the text in front of me. It became a social “bridge” when it spent a week on my coffee table, its attractive cover inviting comment and conversation from visitors – echoing Trollope’s use of the book as a “third-party” in social interactions. It now presents me with a final physical challenge, to create space for it on already full bookshelves that contain everything from well-worn second-hand copies (a touch of old-book fetishism there) to brand new editions that are as yet unread.

These individual interactions raise questions not only about my own book-buying habits but also about our social attitudes towards books: what do we value about the book? Why do we preserve and protect books, store them and hoard them? Why is the destruction of books instinctively abhorrent to many of us. (Price’s front cover image might be regarded as beautiful art but is the destruction of a set of Lemony Snicket books by reality TV star Lauren Conrad afforded the same cultural status?)

And how is the value of books changing in an increasingly digital culture in which, depending on how you look at it, print is becoming either less or more valuable? Price suggests that we need to better understand the print “before” against which we position the digital “after”: too often, she argues, “we use idealized printed texts as a stick with which to beat real digital ones” in ways that “flatten the range of uses to which the book was put before digital media.” But as this book shows, the meanings of the book in Victorian Britain were just as diverse as the multiple uses to which books were put. By complicating the two-way distinction of text and book, Price above all suggests that the contemporary binary of print vs. digital is a false dichotomy, one which pushes us towards asking the wrong questions and creating all-too-simple answers. As Price ventures, the most interesting question to ask may be not “what the Victorians felt about the book but why they felt so much.” The same might be said of our feelings towards books – both print and digital – today. Books matter in every sense of the word, and better understanding “how to do things with books” can both enrich our study of the Victorian period and enliven our cultural debates today.

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Charlotte Mathieson teaches and researches English literature at the University of Warwick, and blogs about nineteenth-century literature and culture at charlottemathieson.wordpress.com.