Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

Article excerpt

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. By Leah Price. Princeton University Press. 360pp, Pounds 19.95. ISBN 9780691114170. Published 9 May 2012

Halfway through reading this monograph I instinctively did what Leah Price says people do with books: I used it as a prop to fend off the unwanted overtures of a friendly tourist on a train. That is, I hid behind it, although in fiction more aggressive readers enforce their will by throwing books at people who invade their privacy at an inconvenient moment. Stranger still, my rejected travelling companion looked for company across the aisle and found it in a Christian conference delegate absorbed in her Bible. Given that much of Price's unusual study is about the circulation of Bibles and tracts, more freely given than read, and the social interactions built by texts as barriers or bridges between readers, there was something uncannily apt about my own reading experience.

Price's study is essentially about books as commodities. She shows how the Victorians not only read them but also wrapped their cheese in pages of discarded tracts, and lined trunks with the leaves of sensation novels, as Edmund Gosse famously recounts in Father and Son (1907). They also worried about their servants sneakily reading the books they were only supposed to be dusting, although when servants were given tracts they were more likely to ignore them, or put them to baser uses. As she argues, it is difficult for novels to represent the interiority of reading. Even where fictional characters such as Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver are shown apparently devouring books, they are more likely to be daydreaming: hence handling displaces reading as Price's chief concern, with the emphasis on paper, bindings, sales and gifts, rather than losing oneself in passionate engagement with plot and character.

Differentiating between "book" (the physical object) and "text" (the words), Price explores the interconnections between the three operations of reading, handling and circulating, which perhaps most powerfully come together in the history of the "it-narrative", the fictional autobiography of an inanimate object such as a coin or a Bible, which makes its way in the world, gathering experience, dirt and dog-ears in about equal proportions. Passed from owner to owner like Black Beauty, books are indeed treated as cavalierly as horses, being anthropomorphised into prisoners and slaves, unloved, unwanted and, worst of all, unread. …

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