How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain


"How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain" asks how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading. When did the coffee-table book become an object of scorn? Why did law courts forbid witnesses to kiss the Bible? What made Victorian cartoonists mock commuters who hid behind the newspaper, ladies who matched their books' binding to their dress, and servants who reduced newspapers to fish 'n' chips wrap?

Shedding new light on novels by Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontes, Trollope, and Collins, as well as the urban sociology of Henry Mayhew, Leah Price also uncovers the lives and afterlives of anonymous religious tracts and household manuals. From knickknacks to wastepaper, books mattered to the Victorians in ways that cannot be explained by their printed content alone. And whether displayed, defaced, exchanged, or discarded, printed matter participated, and still participates, in a range of transactions that stretches far beyond reading.

Supplementing close readings with a sensitive reconstruction of how Victorians thought and felt about books, Price offers a new model for integrating literary theory with cultural history. "How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain" reshapes our understanding of the interplay between words and objects in the nineteenth century and beyond.


Upon coming into his master’s fortune, Dickens’s illiterate dustman Mr. Boffin immediately hires a ballad-seller to entertain him by reading aloud. Only one detail remains to be checked: “You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?”

‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr. Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold.
Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off.
Do you know him?’

‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr. Boffin
slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan
Empire.’ (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend 59)

Because no one reading this passage shares Mr. Boffin’s illiteracy, and because few readers of late Dickens have not read at least the spines of Gibbon, we smile. But what if the geographical confusion made bibliographical sense? As a waste-dealer familiar with tanners, Mr. Boffin would have heard of “Russia” as a metonymy for a leather produced in that country, calfskin (often dyed red) tanned with birch oil that imparted a characteristic smell. in this hypothesis, the hope that “you might have know’d him” would look perfectly reasonable: cannier than Silas, Mr. Boffin does recognize the book “without,” if not within. “In what I did know,” David Copperfield reflects upon leaving warehouse for school, “I was much farther removed from my companions than in what I did not” (Dickens, David Copperfield 218). If we took Russia to refer to container rather than contents, then the dustman’s class position would reflect less a deficiency of interpretive skill than an excess of sensitivity to color, texture, and smell. His ignorance of the history in the book would throw into relief how much he knows about the history of the book. “Bought him at a sale”: Boffin knows not only how the “wollumes” were manufactured, but whether he is their first owner. Once endowed with a life story, even a book judged by “his” cover can elicit affection.

When Silas later arrives to take up his task, it remains unclear whether the “gorging Lord-Mayor’s-Show of wollumes (probably meaning gorgeous, but misled by association of ideas)” will end up on Mrs. Boffin’s side of the room (whose shelves display stuffed birds) or Mr. Boffin’s (lined with cold joints). As binding is to text, so “gorgeous” to “gorging”:

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