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Leah Price’s magisterial How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain arrives as the perfect antidote to the disembodied information of the digital era and the abstract text of the theoretical realm. Price supplies the counterpart to the glowing e-book or the play of language: lumpily physical paper objects that might be limp, smudged, torn, made of small squares or large sheets, derived from rags, sewn to covers, wrapped around fish or cheese, and ripped off for wiping in outhouses. Price reveals to us the fascinating alternative world of the physical substance of the book.

How To Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain brings together cultural and book history, positioning the intellectual insistence on ideas against the everyday usefulness of things. What’s more, Price reveals that this contrast has a long history. Throughout the nineteenth century scholars fought to salvage books as pure ideas, viewing those who prized material volumes as degraded. Price’s great achievement is twofold: first, she restores to us the history of this debate (which is, she shows, classed and gendered; female servants in particular were accused of seeing books only for their object properties), and second, she insists on the interest, value, and history of the material side in a way that her Victorian subjects could rarely articulate. Price reveals this dispute, and she gives voice to the suppressed side, in an achievement as poignant as it is important.

As her title’s allusion to J. L. Austin suggests, books are performative objects for Price-they can do things, lots of things, besides getting read. They can tell their own stories as it-narratives. They can be erected as barriers between newlyweds who hide behind the covers in Anthony Trollope novels. They can be thrown at people in Jane Eyre (1847) or David Copperfield (1850), or used as a source of antisocial self-absorption in The Mill on the Floss (1860). Books can be objects that servants have to dust instead of reading; they are pieces of junk mail that accumulate against their recipients’ will; they are waste products passed along to different users for household purposes. After reading How To Do Things With Books, nobody will ever be able to look at a material book the same way again—and this perhaps proves that the material book has indeed become strange to us in the e-book era. Needing to explain what books do is perhaps the surest sign that we no longer know.

Price restores the book to the text, and she does it with style. This is a rare feat of writing, a concise, witty, sharp-witted analysis. When was the last time you read an academic book with such perfect gems of sentences you want to buttonhole someone to read them aloud? I just opened it at random and found this one: “There’s a reason that book historians have gravitated toward tearjerkers and pornography: like dolls that cry and wet their pants, past readers come to life through secretion” (19). Some of Price’s claims are so packed they could themselves have formed the basis of another book. Here’s her account of the novel’s relation to the tract: “The experiences of being handed a tract, read aloud to, and tricked into mistaking printed advertisements for personal letters, all provided the novel with mirror images for its own claim to be freely chosen” (176). Similarly, “the postal debates . . . can be understood as a face-off between these two models, with reformers championing correspondence as the medium of individual enlightenment and conservatives exposing it as a generator of mass markets” (216). Price makes us think about compulsory versus voluntary reading as a larger opposition that governed nineteenth-century discourses.

How To Do Things With Books is divided into two parts: one devoted to literature, one to material history. Price begins with an introduction and a first chapter showing how despicable it seemed to focus on the material volume instead of the ineffable meaning. Chapters 2 and 3 offer amusing close readings of reading Victorian literature. Scene after scene in Trollope turns out to center on characters propping up books or papers to prevent contact with others. “What interests Trollope . . . isn’t the relation between a person and a text so much as the relation, or lack thereof, that two persons can establish only in the presence of a printed third party” (60). If Trollope’s characters (and Thomas Hardy’s and George Eliot’s) block one another with books, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre are full of children who dream and read over books, while vicious elders hurl books at children and box their ears with books. Price concludes that “the opening battles between children reading texts and adults handling books” prefigures the later gendered divide between women as secretaries/copyists, and men as intellectual producers (100). This reading is elegantly bound up with David Copperfield’s own development as copyist and author. This section concludes with a chapter on it-narratives, the genre of books in which things narrate their own history. Price appears to have read every it-narrative ever published, and makes scintillatingly epigrammatic connections between the it-narrative and the Bildungsroman (“one on the rise, another on the wane; one centered on subjects, the other on objects” (124)).

The second half of the book offers a cultural history of three ways of understanding the book. Chapter 5 vividly describes the problem of the accumulation of what we would today call junk mail, a particular issue before Rowland Hill’s postal reforms of the late 1830s, when the recipient would have to pay for incoming material. Tracts and religious writings posed a particularly interesting distribution problem: gift, sale, or rental? Prize books, too, were forced onto an unwilling recipient who might not want to read them. But the opposite was also a problem, as we see in Chapter 6. Victorians expressed pervasive anxiety about servants covertly reading (and dirtying) their masters’ books. Enforced reading is perhaps most unpleasant in the enforced power dynamic of reading aloud, in which servants may be reduced to “human audiobooks,” where “the audience is captive, the reader its captor” (214). Chapter 7 looks at paper recycling, pointing out that rag-based paper far outlasted text. After reading, the paper would be handed on to other readers, sold for waste, used to start fires, employed as curl papers, pasted into trunks, reused to wrap food, or employed for wiping. Focusing the discussion through Mayhew’s 1851 London Labour and the London Poor, Price points out that Mayhew forbids us to prize text over book; we cannot see the book as leftover residue to an ethereal and superior stream of thought.

How To Do Things With Books ends with a gloriously bold challenge to Benedict Anderson, pointing out that his 1983/1991 Imagined Communities “confuses the real simultaneity of the ‘news’ with the putative synchronicity of the ‘paper’”; yes, shared words might unite men into a public sphere, but the paper itself “splinters them into masters and servants, men and women, stepparents and orphans” (261); the story told by the material book differs from, and undercuts, the story told by the abstract information.

How To Do Things With Books made me want to uphold the debased, suppressed, material book; its litany of dismissive elite male scholars becomes as depressing as Price could hope for, especially given the vibrant, rich material culture of the book in the nineteenth century. Victorians loved their things. Anyone who has seen a Victorian parlor knows how many things they had to love, and books were not least among them. Books were bound in special bindings, velvet or silk or calf, often hand-sewn or at least chosen by the owner; owners colored in their books and added drawings and notes; scrapbooks and homemade manuscripts were prized, displayed objects. Think of the hand-colored version of The Pilgrim’s Progress that Maggie Tulliver mourns in The Mill on the Floss; think of the whole category of beautiful books: illustrated gift books, amateur scrapbooks, books produced by artistic presses like William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

At times Price accepts almost too fully the dismissive perspective of those who stood for text instead of book, as when she dismisses Maggie’s Pilgrim’s Progress (and its link with Mrs. Tulliver’s equally beloved, equally lost household goods) as a mere “confusion,” a “perverse logic” in which everything, including books, “dwindles to a material surface” instead of registering the powerful nostalgic affection the text generates for such material surfaces (170). She discusses coffeetable books simply as an example of books that aren’t read—but many were indeed read, especially by voracious youth who had few other resources (Bewick’s British Birds, for instance?) and many were prized family possessions. Similarly, it’s true that prize books sometimes were unwanted matter foisted on unwilling recipients, but one might remember Margaret Oliphant’s Mr. May, in Phoebe Junior (1876), ruining himself for a bookcase that would do justice to his handsome prize books. Prize books could visibly confirm class status and educational achievement, and were often the last things to be sold, the most prized mementos of past glory and a life that might have been. In her introduction, Price writes, “The Victorians cathected the text in proportion as they disowned the book” (4). True: but there were Victorians, and then there were Victorians. Not everyone disowned the book. In short, Price is superb at tracing the male intelligentsia’s revulsion at book-objects, but the defenders of those material books had more to say, and said it more frequently, joyfully, evocatively, and variously, than readers of How To Do Things With Books might realize.

Revealing an oppressive narrative is, however, just as valuable as asserting the presence of a counter-narrative. How To Do Things With Books is an eye-opening read. It makes a new kind of sense of the book, and the history of the book, and anyone who reads it will look at Victorian volumes differently. How To Do Things With Books is one volume where the book is as good as the text.