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Not-reading: the Burden of the Book

2012 July 23
by lucinda matthews-jones

Maria Damkjær, King’s College London

maria.damkjaer@kcl.ac.uk

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, by Leah Price, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012, ix + 350 pages, illustrated, £19.95 (hardback), ISBN: 9780691114170

The dust jacket of Leah Price’s book is dominated by an image of cannibalised printed pages, cut and twisted into paper flowers. This, and the title How to Do Things with Books, might lead the reader to think that Price is writing about material books and material uses – scrapbooking, binders’ waste, paper crafts. In fact, the subject of Price’s book is ‘Victorian representations and perceptions of, and fantasies and illusions about, the circulation of books’ and not ‘the circulation of books itself’ (36). As such, the book is less concered with books’ actual materiality than it is with Victorians talking about (or refusing to talk about) that materiality. As Price admits: ‘my occasional appeal to material evidence (the traces of wear and tear, of handling or ignoring) is dwarfed by my more regular use of textual proof’ (36). Readers looking for a discussion of different editions (serials, magazines, cheap reprints) will be disappointed – and sometimes, I could have wished for a brief discussion of what the difference between, say, a magazine and ‘the book’ could make to the argument. Although Price never states so outright, it is clear that unseating ‘the book’ from its epistemological pedestal is for another project. However, for those of a bibliographical bent, Price’s book sustains a discussion of the genesis of book-historical disciplines out of diverse Victorian discourses. How to Do Things with Books can be read as a contribution to the ‘material turn’ of recent years, or as a literary scholar’s reading of the bibliographical interest in Victorian Studies. Price’s aim is to re-invest the Victorian book with materiality. Where Adrian Johns’ 1998 book The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making examined the idealised ‘fixity’ of the book from the angle of production and distribution, Price is making similar inroads from the opposite end of the book’s life; from its reception and circulation points.[i] Discussing the discourses behind value judgments of book-objects is especially important in the face of digitization and the changing nature of scholarship: ‘When we use idealized printed texts as a stick with which to beat real digital ones, we flatten the range of uses to which the book was put before digital media came along to compete with it’ (7).

To position her book within reception theory, Price suggests that she is engaged in rejection theory (7). Her subject matter is the many different permutations of the classic scenario: a Victorian, with a book, not reading. This is an extraordinarily rich entry-point, opening a discussion of the myriad ways in which books’ materiality could threaten to negate their spiritual immersiveness. And by setting up three key terms – reading, handling and circulating – Price widens her field of examination to a much wider social scope of engagement with print culture than if she had focused on just the middle-class reader, reading. By examining novels, religious tracts, didactic fiction, conduct books and proceedings from bible distributors, amongst other sources, she locates books sitting unused on shelves or in drawers, lying on tables in gaudy bindings, stared into by absent-minded people, pressed on the reluctant poor, resold, forgotten, stolen and torn up. In chapter Two, Price focuses on characters in Trollope novels who take up books to avoid conversation with their spouses. The uses and misuses of books were legion. Price explains: ‘Whether in the privy or on the sofa table, among collectors or bibliomancers, a book that was placed—either socially or spatially—was always a book not being read’ (18). Mentioning the binding of a book is often a sign that it becomes impossible to talk about its contents. Just as the physical book is imagined to disappear once we start reading it, so conversely any inordinate attention to bindings, covers and typeset was imagined to signify the devaluation of its contents. Books were best when they transcended materiality. Covers were associated with surfaces, gloss, fetishization and literalism.

Throughout, Price shows her determination not to reduce her arguments to sets of sheer binaries. The answers are often complex, sometimes contradictory, and Price’s argument savours such complexity. It is especially in her discussion of book bindings that this method comes to the fore. In a didactic mid-century tract called Little Servant Maids, one maid is attracted to the handsome bindings of her mistress’s books. The words in which her mistress condemns her implies that only ‘”these sort of persons”’ judge books by their covers – a judgement that is belied by the specificity with which she (and the narrator) describes each binding and its implied social connotation, as Price points out (180). Price argues that fear of servants reading was often a fear of them soiling the physical books. Middle-class mistresses in didactic tracts could thus exonerate themselves from any abnormal attention to bindings exactly because those bindings were for their sort of people. Price traces these ‘sumptuary laws’ for books through many different permutations (116). In another tract, an it-narrative called The Story of a Pocket Bible, the narrator-book is taken off its shelf, where its owner has left it to languish, by a servant supposed to be dusting the book case. Instead of being overjoyed to be read, the pocket bible is horrified that the servant girl would disobey her master by reading his books. Only when she buys herself a plain, paper-covered bible does our it-narrator relax. As Price points out, often the lesson learned by reading didactic tracts is not to read (113). On the other hand, many bible distributors noted with approval the worn aspect of bibles as ‘witnesses’ to their owners’ piety. Marks and smudges were not always a bad thing.

Price distinguishes between ‘the text’ and ‘the book’ (4). In Victorian culture, different versions of the same text (the bible, for instance) could unite people across class and age boundaries, whereas the book as object differentiated between people (17). The fear of books being used as ‘just another object’ is expressed, Price shows, by being displaced onto women, servants, children, or colonial subjects. Hence the proliferation of stories about maids burning manuscripts or lining pie-dishes with book pages, women choosing book covers to match their dresses, and racial ‘others’ fetishizing the book instead of reading it. These comic images allow the ‘correct’ way of valuing books to be safely ensconced within the white male middle-class text-loving community. In an age of mechanical reproduction, the skill with which you abstracted from the book as physical object was a measure of how good a reader you were – a discourse that found its twentieth-century expression, Price argues, in New Criticism (31-32). The bookish bildungsroman hero like David Copperfield, Price contends, is not so much a lover of texts as a despiser of books – of their materiality and outward form.

A question running through How to Do Things with Books is: is reading a ‘good thing,’ and for whom is it ‘good’? Is reading always driven by desire? Junk mail, vapid Sunday School prize books and religious tracts were pressed on the poor, the dependent and the immature in opposition to the middle-class ideal that reading allowed individualisation. Books, especially those which were meant to be distributed by the middle-classes to their social inferiors, were often the means by which class differences were upheld, not overcome. The logic of tract-distribution thus belies both Benedict Anderson’s idea of an anonymous community of readers (because tracts were often exchanged face-to-face between people who did not share a community), and the idea of reading as a force of social mobility. As Price says: ‘If tract distributing punctures the myth that makes reading an expression of individual choice, it also threatens the hope—or staves off the fear—that the shared act of reading will break down social barriers. The relationships that reading vehicled were asymmetrical, conflictual, and frequently asynchronous’ (175). Price contrasts this with the romantic view of reading in the bildungsroman: ‘Twenty-first-century intellectuals inherit an eighteenth-century understanding of literacy as a precondition for psychological interiority and political self-determination—along with a nineteenth-century infrastructure that thrusts printed paper into our letter slots, our faces, our hands, our fields of vision (…) In theory, a self formed by print; in practice, a mass assaulted by printed matter’ (148). In her final chapter, Price discusses Mayhew’s obsession with waste paper in London Labour and the London Poor, and traces this into modern scholarly interests in the precariously-preserved archive.

Price’s book opens up the field to a wide range of facinating questions. While not specifically discussing the difference between manuscripts and printed matter, her book provokes questions about the value we place on print. What role does handwriting play in our history of the endangered text? Is it manuscript, marginalia, reader response, defamation? Furthermore, is print sanctified? Is Carlyle’s burnt draft of The French Revolution more valuable because it was to have been printed?

When a colleague of mine saw the cannibalised paper flowers on Price’s cover, she made an audible gasp of distress. And I think this is exactly Price’s point: that our reverence for the printed page is an inheritance from the Victorians. This book does much to examine our investment with print’s status of sanctity.

Maria Damkjær is a PhD-student at King’s College, London. Her research focuses on Victorian print culture and domestic time, asking how mid-nineteenth-century discourses constructed domesticity as a temporally distinct and compartmentalised realm. She is especially interested in the ways in which publishing practices and material forms of print complicated the texts’ representation of domestic temporality. Her project encompasses Dickens, Gaskell and Beeton, as well as Victorian periodicals.


[i] Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

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