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
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 ...
Talia Schaffer is a professor of English at Queens College CUNY and the Graduate Center CUNY. She is the author of Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Oxford, 2011); The Forgotten Female Aesthetes; Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Virginia, 2001); co-editor with Kathy A. Psomiades of Women and British Aestheticism (Virginia, 1999); editor of Lucas Malet’s 1901 novel, The History of Sir Richard Calmady (Birmingham, 2003); and editor of Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Addison-Wesley Longman, 2006). She has published widely on noncanonical women writers, material culture, popular fiction, aestheticism, and late-Victorian texts. She is currently working on a book on ‘familiar marriage,’ a rival to romantic unions in Victorian marriage plots.