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eah Price obviously enjoyed writing this book, and you will enjoy reading it. Unlike most literary criticism and literary history written today, How to do things with books pretty much avoids jargon and instead uses clear, strong writing continually spiced with wit to reveal many things we have overlooked in our own reading. In heroically trying to bring together historically grounded literary criticism and the field of book history, this archeologist of the imagination succeeds in showing us how major canonical works of fiction make us observe the act of reading (and non-reading). She also explains the roles the material, physical book played in the thought worlds of their authors and other Victorians. As Price explains, her pages “excavate the often contentious relation among three operations: reading (doing something with the words), handling (doing something with the [book as] object), and circulation (doing something to, or with, other persons by means of the book” (5). Much of what we encounter in How to do things with books follows from the problematic relation of the words “book” and “text,” for as Price points out,

You'll have noticed my contortions attempting to distinguish text—a string of words—from "book" or "book-object": a physical thing. In an everyday language incapable of even deciding what preposition should link the two—the text "of" a hook, the text "in" a book?—one term appears sometimes as contained within the other, sometimes as antithetical to it. If "book" really connoted materiality, there would be no need to affix the pleonastic "object"; if "text" really provided an adequate term for a linguistic structure, I would refer to what you're now reading as "this text." Only the ambiguity of sentence openings prevented me from generalizing the distinction between the Bible (a text) and the bible (an object) to Books and books. [4]

After an excellent introduction that sets forth the questions she will investigate, Price proceeds to the book's first section, “Selfish Fictions,” which contains three chapters, each of which demonstrates how a Victorian fiction makes use of the book as object: “Anthony Trollope and the repellent Book,” her first chapter, begins by briefly looking at the way Eliot, James, Thackeray, Ann Brontë, Trollope, and and Punch cartoons employ “the trope of the husband hiding behind the paper” (51), before looking at a range of fictions in which reading and not reading plays a significant role in characterization and narrative. The next chapter, “David Copperfield and the absorbent book,” examines novels in which “the child's sense of self is jump-started not by reading, but being hit with a book. (Or boxed in the ear with an encyclopedia, or poked in the ribs with a prayer book, or knocked off balance by having a book wrested out of his hands” (72). The next chapter, “It-Narratives and the book as agent,” continues this investigation of the materiality of texts, making clear that one can do more with books that read them:

Analytical bibliographers have taught us that books accrue meaning not just at the moment of manufacture, but through their subsequent uses: buying and selling, lending and borrowing, preserving and destroying. A history of the book that took that whole range of transactions as building blocks (rather than focusing on the fraction of the book's life cycle that it spends in the hands of readers) could usefully borrow its formal conventions from the "it-narrative": a fictional autobiography in which a thing traces its travels among a series of richer and poorer owners. [107]

Part II, “Bookish Transactions,” looks at three ways the physical, material nature of books had socio-political effects in Victorian England: Chapter V, “The Book as Burden: Junk Mail and Religious Tracts,” Chapter VI, “The Book as Go-Between: Domestic Servants and Forced Reading,” and Chapter VII, “The Book as Waste: Henry Mayhew and the Fall of Paper Recycling.”

This is the kind of book that often makes the reader — at least this reader — ask, “Why didn't I think of that?” In other words, Price continually offers new understandings of matters lying in plain sight but invisible to most of us. Like all first-rate criticism, hers makes us see familiar texts and familiar issues in new ways. For example, students of literature and information technology have always emphasized the way silent reading creates interiority and a sense of self, and they usually celebrate this phenomenon as an advance in human nature. Price, with characteristic astuteness, wakens us to other implications and effects of silent reading:

Silent reading asserts not just one's own selfhood—as when Sarah Ellis warns that "the habit of silent and solitary reading has the inevitable effect, in a family, of opening different trains of thought and feelings, which tend rather to separate than to unite" (252)—but also, more aggressively, its right to be respected by others. Yet the more widely a book is "recognized" (and in Kirsteen seems to mean both senses of that word) as a bid for what Goffman would later call "civil inattention," the ruder reading becomes. The impropriety of reading in the presence of one's spouse brings home the more general etiquette under which (as one guide rules in 1893) "a gentleman or lady may look over a book of engravings or a collection of photographs with propriety, but it is impolite to read in company" (Woodburn 219). In Elizabeth Sewell's Tractarian novel Gertrude, a girl asked to help her mother with some sewing immediately picks up a novel: "'Well, I will see about it presently,' replied Jane; and she went to fetch her book, and then, seating herself by the drawing-room window, forgot her mother's wishes" (7). (The mother who reads instead of washing the supper dishes finds her match in a daughter who engages in leisure activities instead of contributing to the domestic economy.) Any Bronte reader will recognize the name and the window seat: the only difference lies in the value attached to solipsism by a didactic bildungsroman or an "antichristian composition."

What the bildungsroman codes as selfhood, didactic texts parse as selfishness. [68]

Similarly, Price makes us notice the other-than-celebratory implications of literacy, particularly among the poorer members of Victorian society, when she explains that “in the nineteenth century the book came to feel like a burden. Printed matter was foisted upon, more often than given to; receiving a book now connoted powerlessness as often as privilege.” (139). This flood of often unwanted printed texts came about because

the Victorians pioneered institutions—whether secular (the post) or religious (the tract society)—that allowed printed matter to be distributed at the expense of someone other than its end user. By disjoining owning from choosing, those transactions challenged Enlightenment assumptions about the relation between reading and identity. Where the secular press trusted print to lift individuals out of their social origin, the niche marketing pioneered by Evangelical publishers and commercial advertisers alike vested it instead with the power to mark age, gender, and class. [139]

One consequence, as she points out, is that the Evangelical tract societies pioneered niche marketing. Another is that in “decoupling who reads from who pays, free print challenges three tenets of what could be called 'bookish liberalism': that acquiring a book implies choosing it; that owning a book implies an intention to read it: and that virtual encounters with an author distant in space or time can release readers from the constraints of their own social position” (150). But, of course, to challenge is not to disprove. Furthermore, she argues, examining the economic and cultural effects of free reading material — what she terms “Giving free print its due” — produces economic history “in which disposal and storage would upstage production and distribution, and a different cultural history in which—far from enabling mobility or independence—the book would become a prop for commemorating one's forebears, deferring to the judgment of one's elders, and accepting favors from one's betters.” Or to restate her point more positively, “taking free print seriously would allow us to recognize forms of individual and collective creativity that otherwise remain invisible, because their inventiveness operates at the level of the book's circulation, not its content” (150).

Years ago I read in the Times Literary Supplement or another periodical that a reviewer can give no more than two cheers — if only, I would add, to prevent a positive review from appearing as puffery. Therefore, I have to admit that every so often Price's commendable efforts to entertain as well as enlighten go a bit astray, as in the following analogy: “Borrowing the the logic of the saint's relic, association copies invest the object with the value borrowed from the identities of its human users.” So far so good, but then she continues, “And like the saint, the previous user must be dead” (229). Usually, but not always. Some things just don't extrapolate. “Books designed as gifts for middle-class children puncture the myth of the selfmade reader” (163). Receiving a single gift book, or, for that matter, a prize book in no way constrains a reader from plunging into other books. But enough qualifications. Read this book!

Having praised Price's use of analogy and epigrammatic statement, I conclude with some of my favorites:

No cheaper cue for our sympathies. no surer predictor of the plot: a character who sells his father-in-law's library can't be trusted not to buy a mistress; a character who wants his books bound in leather will marry the blonde; a character who manhandles books will abuse children. [3]

Ambivalence about circulation runs through these different case studies: untouched books figure as prisoners or wallflowers or clotted blood, but subjected to too many readers are compared to worn-out prostitutes or knackered horses. [12]

Tracts are to the mid-Victorian novel what romance was to its predecessors: the inscribed genre against which it defines itself. [14]

Among all these uses [of books,] reading elicits the most curiosity and leaves the least evidence. There's a reason that book historians have gravitated toward tearjearkers and pornography: like dolls that cry and wet their pants, past readers come to life through secretion. [19]

If we recognize twenty-first century book historians as the heirs to the realist novel, then twenty-first century literary critics look more like heirs to the sermon. [28]

Not noticing that the book was made of paper also implied ignoring that others have commissioned, manufactured, and transmitted it, and that other handlings had preceded and would follow his own. The good reader — himself disembodied and unclassed — forgot what books looked like, what they weighed, and would fetch on the resale market; he also forgot how books has reached his hands, and through whose, and at what price. [31]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, faith in bible reading had devolved into faith in reading. [41]

Once the the feminization of reading in the present-day West is recognized as an anomaly in both time and space, it becomes harder to explain by essentialist assumptions about women's greater capacity for empathy or imagination. Instead, the dependent variant seems to be status. [57]

In the prelapsarian model of childhood that the Romantics bequeathed to the bildungsroman, the child internalizes txts while adults wield books; in Evangelical literature addressed to children themselves, on the contrary, virtuous adults understand the text as something to be memorized, while greedy children fixate on the book as a thing to be owned. [81]

The master trope of book history has always been personification. [134]

Measuring by what has survived, we call the nineteenth century the age of the novel; but if we counted instead what was produced, the Victorians might look more like a people of the tract. [150]

Missionaries . . . were the first to identify books as the locus of two problems that some twenty-first century commentators imagine unique to digital media: whether content can be distributed more effectively through gift, sale, or rental, and what role social networks should play in that transmission. [156]

Where American slave narratives made literacy both symbol of, and means to, freedom, contemporaneous British tracts make receiving books a sign of servants' dependence. [184]

Like medicine, tracts hover between two categories: understood by one party as a gift and the other (whether children or poor) as a burden, they cure but also disgust. [201]

As one twentieth century observer pointed out, a society overloaded with paper creates the temptation to misrepresent the mass-distributed as personal communications and vice versa. [217]

Related Material


Price, Leah. How to do things with books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. 350 + viiI pp.

Last modified 4 May 2013