- How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price
In this fascinating text, Leah Price ranges widely over territory that is usually carved up into separate fiefdoms by scholars of the history of the book, the history of reading, or some form of literary criticism. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain suggests that when we do this carving up, making distinctions between “texts” and material books, readers and “book handlers,” we inevitably miss something about what the books and their circulation can and do mean. Price argues compellingly that the Victorians pre-empted modern-day book historians in probing the meaning and use of books and other printed matter. By sorting the relations in the nineteenth century between “reading (doing something with words), handling (doing something with the object), and circulating (doing something to, or with, other persons by means of the book)” (6), Price suggests that we might come to better “understand the printed ‘before’ against which so many twenty- first-century commentators measure their digital ‘after’” (7) and thereby avoid unhelpfully idealizing printed texts, especially in relation to digital ones.
Although Price’s study runs the gamut of nineteenth-century genres (and paper-based productions generally), her focus is the tension between the middle-class Bildungsroman and the tract. These two extremely popular forms allow her to reflect on the meanings and functioning of different genres, classes of audience, and models of literacy in the Victorian era. She observes that while the novels “frame reading in terms of individual agency, self-fashioning, even transgression,” the tracts instead embed reading within [End Page 228] an “interpersonal transaction” (17), one that is mediated by the giver and receiver of the tract and the circumstances under which it is exchanged. As her text makes clear, heedlessly mapping one notion of reading onto another kind of reading material can lead both Victorian and modern critics to misunderstand what a particular reading situation might signify.
Price’s book is arranged into seven chapters that she acknowledges may be of unequal interest or utility to those who come to the book with particular questions. Chapter 1, “Reader’s Block,” is largely theoretical, concerned with teasing out the possibilities and pitfalls of multiple approaches to literature and literary history. (As the title suggests, this chapter may prove daunting to readers who are not steeped in the various critical approaches Price engages, and readers who prefer a more genre-based approach to the material will be relieved to know that the author herself grants permission to skip it.) Price traces the competitiveness among contemporary strands of scholarship, noting that a “familiar intellectual-historical narrative” tells us that “since the New Criticism, literary critics have spearheaded an assault on the book’s materiality, elevating the study of literature by demoting bibliographers to a service profession” (32). But, she explains,
If the book has been invisible and intangible even to those literary-critical schools that succeeded them, it isn’t only for the negative reason that material culture remains absent from our training; it’s also because a commonsense Cartesianism or Platonism more actively numbs us to the look and feel of the printed page. Hence critics’ discomfort with purely bibliographic units—the page-break as opposed to the line-break, the volume as opposed to the chapter.(31–32)
Furthermore, Price notes the importance of distinguishing between the “history of the book” and the “history of reading,” as “reading is not the only thing that can be done to books” (34). However, she also emphasizes that although books, like other objects, can be subjected to many uses beyond the one for which they are originally designed, they remain a distinctive category: “Even the most unreadable book still differs from nontextual objects in the way it’s priced, cataloged, and handled,” she explains, and so “the exceptionalism of the book should be no less visible to economists than to literary critics” (35). Price points out that not only did the Victorians recognize the distinction between...