Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

Leah Price
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 360
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain
    Book Description:

    How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britainasks how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading. When did the coffee-table book become an object of scorn? Why did law courts forbid witnesses to kiss the Bible? What made Victorian cartoonists mock commuters who hid behind the newspaper, ladies who matched their books' binding to their dress, and servants who reduced newspapers to fish 'n' chips wrap?

    Shedding new light on novels by Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontës, Trollope, and Collins, as well as the urban sociology of Henry Mayhew, Leah Price also uncovers the lives and afterlives of anonymous religious tracts and household manuals. From knickknacks to wastepaper, books mattered to the Victorians in ways that cannot be explained by their printed content alone. And whether displayed, defaced, exchanged, or discarded, printed matter participated, and still participates, in a range of transactions that stretches far beyond reading.

    Supplementing close readings with a sensitive reconstruction of how Victorians thought and felt about books, Price offers a new model for integrating literary theory with cultural history.How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britainreshapes our understanding of the interplay between words and objects in the nineteenth century and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4218-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Upon coming into his master’s fortune, Dickens’s illiterate dustman Mr. Boffin immediately hires a ballad-seller to entertain him by reading aloud. Only one detail remains to be checked: “You are provided with the needful implement—a book, sir?”

    ‘Bought him at a sale,’ said Mr. Boffin. ‘Eight wollumes. Red and gold. Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off. Do you know him?’

    ‘The book’s name, sir?’ inquired Silas.

    ‘I thought you might have know’d him without it,’ said Mr. Boffin slightly disappointed. ‘His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ (Dickens,Our Mutual Friend 59)

    Because no one...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Reader’s Block
    (pp. 19-42)

    Bought, sold, exchanged, transported, displayed, defaced, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, dispersed, discarded—the transactions that enlist books stretch far beyond the literary or even the linguistic. Frustration first made me wonder where that range begins and ends, for among all those uses, reading elicits the most curiosity and leaves the least evidence. 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.¹ Yet with the exception of the happy few who work on genres that elicit a measurable somatic response, any reception historian...

  7. Part I: Selfish Fictions

    • CHAPTER 2 Anthony Trollope and the Repellent Book
      (pp. 45-71)

      Think back to the language in which some Victorian novels establish a character’s position in relation to a book. A mouthful, but my periphrasis reflects the thesaurus-sized arsenal of circumlocutions that the Victorian novel itself elaborates in order to avoid coupling its characters’ names with the verb “to read.”¹

      “The quarto Bible was laid open before him at the fly-leaf . . . Mr Tulliver turned his eyes on the page” (G. Eliot,The Mill on the Floss274)

      “said Mrs Tulliver, going up to his side and looking at the page” (G. Eliot,The Mill on the Floss274)...

    • CHAPTER 3 David Copperfield and the Absorbent Book
      (pp. 72-106)

      To acknowledge that the trope of repulsive reading cuts across classes, genders, genres, and even media isn’t to deny that the novel—traditionally the genre most invested in absorptive reading—lends that cliché a polemical edge. The comedies of manners that we’ve just seen enlisting the book in hostilities between husbands and wives mirror the scene of reading that opens the most canonical of Victorian bildungsromans. In these novels, the child’s sense of self is jump-started not by reading, but by being hit with a book. (Or boxed on the ear with an encyclopedia, or poked in the ribs with...

    • CHAPTER 4 It-Narrative and the Book as Agent
      (pp. 107-136)

      Until now, the subjects of my sentences have been human agents. Whether decoding words or throwing volumes, whether facing a page or hiding behind a paper, these persons do something with (and to) books. What they don’t read, they still use. So far, so conventional. No matter how energetically book historians distance themselves from the aesthetic, we remain no less attached than literary historians to narratives centered on agents: the author, the editor, the reader, or (even more literally) the literary agent. Such scholarly accounts mirror the structure of their sources, whether authors’ biographies, company histories, or readers’ memoirs. They...

  8. Part II: Bookish Transactions

    • CHAPTER 5 The Book as Burden: Junk Mail and Religious Tracts
      (pp. 139-174)

      Anthropocentrism makes orphans’ hunger for books more recognizable than pocket bibles’ quest for owners. Yet as the traditional dearth of text (and paper) gave way to a scarcity of attention (and shelves), books struggled harder to reach the proper audience. Old problems of production gave way to new problems of distribution: the modern genres to which this chapter turns—religious tracts and junk mail—were impelled less by new manufacturing technologies than by new social networks through which printed matter could be exchanged, donated, requested, accepted, or, increasingly, rejected.

      Natalie Davis’s foundational essay subtitledBooks as Gifts in Sixteenth-Century France...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Book as Go-Between: Domestic Servants and Forced Reading
      (pp. 175-218)

      The previous chapter located the meaning of tracts in the interactions that they represent, but also in the relationships they establish: relationships of difference between giver and reader, relationships of similarity between character and reader. That second meaning may be more readily available to book historians than to literary historians: a quarter century ago, a magisterial analysis of the literary representation of servants never asked what servants read (Robbins). 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...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Book as Waste: Henry Mayhew and the Fall of Paper Recycling
      (pp. 219-257)

      Over the course of this study, the physicality of print has swum into focus at extremes: in the case of books that are especially expensive (bibliophilic collectibles) or especially worthless (free advertising circulars, subsidized religious tracts); among subcultures especially bookish (antiquarians, collectors) or especially bookless (the illiterate, the heathen); with books considered especially sacred and timeless (the Bible) or especially profane and ephemeral (newspapers, almanacs, novels); at the beginning of their life (manufacture) or the end (pulping).

      Taking this last case seriously would mean replacing the traditional question “what is a text” by “when is a text?” In an age...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 258-262)

    For Gissing at century’s end, membership in an audience tainted the aesthetic: “My pleasure in the finest music would be greatly spoilt by having to sit amid a crowd, with some idiot audible on the right hand or left” (The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft125).¹ InNew Grub Streetthe shallow and quick writer’s wife ceases to be a sympathetic character at the moment when she stops noticing defects “to which the common reader would be totally insensible” and starts commenting instead “on the features of the work which had made it popular”: when, in other words, she positions...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 263-292)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 293-326)
  12. Index
    (pp. 327-350)