restricted access How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price (review)
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Reviewed by
Leah Price. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. 360 pages. $29.95 (cloth).

Animal, burden, cloth, dirt, furniture, gift, junk, keepsake, lens, medicine, napkin, prostitute, refuge, slave, toilet paper, virus, weapon. Literally and figuratively, books could be and are many things, as Leah Price demonstrates in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. A rich account of the many (often competing) ways in which novels and other print artifacts were read, handled, and circulated, her study provides both a compelling reading of nineteenth-century print culture and a provocative methodological proposal. At the heart of both is the notion of “nonreading” (8), a term for the wide variety of practices in which books in the broad sense are used but not read (or not only read or no longer read). As Price expertly shows, print artifacts were also used for purposes such as furnishing the home, sheltering the reader from unwelcome gazes, disciplining unruly children, wrapping food, wiping excrement, and brokering long-term relationships between tract distributors and the not yet converted. Examining such practices in detail implies that we no longer see the book as a mute carrier of ideas, Price notes with a nod to Nathalie Davis, but as a material “carrier of relationships” (260). To accommodate that broader vision of literary culture, in her view, literary history in the traditional sense should be replaced with the study of “literary logistics” (31), a perspective that [End Page 100] affords equal if not more attention to the oft-decried handling of books than to the supposedly more proper reading of texts. Turning to the “social life of books” (34) allows us to connect literary studies more closely to cultural history, Price asserts, and sheds new light on well-known as well as unfamiliar publications from the Victorian era, including (junk) mail, newspapers, religious tracts, it-narratives and novels as generically diverse as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. In (re)interpreting these publications, Price also offers valuable insights into the (non)reading practices of various categories of readers, including women, children, servants, illiterate figures (literally nonreaders) and colonial subjects (in brief excursions to India and China). Further underlining the importance of literary logistics to the Victorian age, she maintains that nineteenth-century scholars especially should “take paper seriously” (238), as the period witnessed the rise of cheap paper—via the 1861 repeal of the paper tax and the replacement of expensive linen with inexpensive wood pulp for paper production—and the concomitant, momentous shift “from recycled found [paper] objects to single-use manufactured books” (250). It is not surprising that current readers and critics have unlearned to read the handling of books and their secondhand “after-uses” (221), Price suggests, for we are systematic consumers of single-use and single-owner commodities and have learned to see books accordingly. Now, more than ever, the happiest reader is “the one who can imagine himself to be their first, their only, their implied” reader (259).

Although her book offers an indispensable contribution to the study of how books were used and (not) dispensed with in the nineteenth century, this historical argument should not blind us to its broader implications. Even if the Victorian period is a rich vein for the study of nonreading and literary logistics, similar practices are inevitably present in other periods as well, notably our own. We may no longer want to disinfect the books we borrow from libraries, foist instructive pamphlets on our servants, or wrap newspapers around our fish or cheese, but we are still confronted with junk mail, we still use books for display purposes, and we still, as Price ruefully notes, find it hard to say good-bye to our “old books” (229). These continuities explain her many (often witty, occasionally contrived) allusions to contemporary phenomena such as smart phones, multitasking, and coffee-table books (a twenty-first-century perspective which will be extended, one hopes, in Price’s future work). Additionally...