publisher colophon

To comprise the essential information in a size convenient for the pocket, is attended with more difficulty than many will allow.

—William S. Jacobs, The Student's Chemical Pocket Companion1

Hundreds of articles on Jane Austen have been published over the past decade.2 For the Austen scholar, such bulk poses a daunting challenge: who, really, has the time? Enter The Cambridge Companion to Austen, a work that promises to "[highlight] the most interesting studies of Austen in a vast field of contemporary critical diversity."3 At 251 pages, this volume hardly advertises itself as a short form. Yet in contrast to the "vast" scholarly archive on Austen, the Companion begins to appear, well, a bit briefer. It seems briefer still when we consider the particular mode of reading that the text invites. Without the Companion, Janeites must pour over countless articles, reading each closely to figure out how it amends existing conversations about Austen and style, or Austen and money. With the Companion, readers can head right to the relevant chapters and flip through "Style" or "Money" to learn the essential points. Like the guide or friend its name evokes, the Companion works to orient readers, helping them cut through the "vast field" to what's important, relevant, or otherwise worth it.

As a genre, the companion descends from the medieval vade mecum (literally, "go with me"), a type of small book "suitable for carrying about with one for ready reference."4 Although "companion" became a more popular title for such works beginning in the sixteenth century, the form itself underwent minimal transformation: the vade mecum and companion are both concise reference texts that encourage quick consultation and typically compile or summarize existing content rather than originate it.

In size, the companion also takes its cue from its forebears. There are notable exceptions (a reviewer of Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine describes the six-pound volume as "bloody heavy"), but historically companions have combined physical with textual reduction.5 During [End Page 487] the nineteenth century, companions appeared in small, highly portable sizes commonly ranging from 13 to 18 cm in height; the diminutive 1830 edition of William Mason's The Believer's Pocket Companion (fig. 1) is yet smaller, at 6.6 cm.

Smallness matters for works besides the companion; most notably, scholars argue that the petite size of early novels aided the form's rise.6 However, the companion's physical reduction is distinctive in part because it is often self-conscious. Consider the difference between the following titles of two works published in the nineteenth-century United States: while the American reprint of Sir Walter Scott's novel Waverly, or, 'Tis sixty years since (New York: James Eastburn, 1819; 15 cm tall) and The Maryland pocket companion; or, Every man his own lawyer (Frederick-Town, Md.: Matthias Bartgis, 1819; 18 cm tall) differ little in size, only the second title advertises its material portability. By drawing explicit attention to his work's "pocket" size, Bartgis amplifies the companion's promise of convenience, but he also imagines how readers might transport their copies of this volume. In doing so, he underscores that his text is designed to be used—carried around, consulted, glanced at—as much as read.

Given its foregrounding of "use," the companion might at first seem indistinguishable from other reference texts. Yet just as the companion's self-conscious physical reduction differentiates it from other books that happen to be small, the genre's self-conscious textual reductions further differentiate the companion from more exhaustive works such as the encyclopedia. Encyclopedias promise authority through immersive knowledge: they provide either information about all subjects or comprehensive information about a certain subject.7 Companions, by contrast, feature only key ideas (what the Companion to Austen dubs "highlights") and thus enable a more glancing relation with a given topic. The "glance," as Edward S. Casey notes, "has no pretense to be encyclopedic"; it is not an action of control, but rather a mode of perception that facilitates selection and rapid discovery.8 While the vast scope of an encyclopedia promises mastery, the brevity of a companion asks readers to accept a limited sort of mastery, exchanging total control for the opportunity to explore a new subject or experience without the potentially overwhelming pressure to know everything.

Part of the companion's appeal, then, is that it not only enables the speedy acquisition of important topical knowledge but also offers readers the assurance that someone else—wiser, more well-read, more encyclopedic—has preselected its content. Nineteenth-century readers, for example, were likely drawn to The Student's Chemical Pocket Companion (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1807; 17 cm) by their desire for both textual brevity and the guidance of a trusted authority. Compiled by medical [End Page 488]

Fig 1. William Mason, The Believer's Pocket Companion (London: James Nisbet, 1830), Mc-Gehee Miniature Book Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
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Fig 1.

William Mason, The Believer's Pocket Companion (London: James Nisbet, 1830), Mc-Gehee Miniature Book Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

doctor William S. Jacobs, this companion summarizes key chemical terms and concepts for medical students attending the University of Pennsylvania. Jacobs begins his companion by explaining that learning chemistry requires "the aid of volumes"—a significant investment of time, labor, and money. Such investment, he concludes, is beyond the reach of "The Student," who "too frequently damped in the commencement of his career, by the prospect of labour before him, turns from the volumes in disgust, and relinquishes the pursuit, before he can become interested in the subject."9 Enter Jacobs's companion, which reduces the labor of chemistry study by distilling multiple volumes into "the essential information in a size convenient for the pocket."10 Jacobs asserts his mastery by demonstrating that he's read the requisite "volumes," as well as by framing his reduction as a test of worth rather than a simple matter of convenience; he knows which information is truly "essential."

The companion can seem to limit readers by granting them only selective knowledge of a topic. However, as Jacobs indicates, the companion's reductions can liberate as well as restrict. "A volume of this size," he writes of his own text, "is calculated to allure [students] into the paths of science, by diverting the mind, and exciting in it the spirit of enquiry."11 In other words, he explains that his reductions do not obviate labor for students, so much as to make a different kind of labor—inquiry—easier. The companion's brevity helps students save time, yes, but it also offers something more. It is a way to "allure" students into study, clearing [End Page 489] away the initial obstacle of a heavy reading load in order to promote excitement. In the present day, instructors limit reading loads for similar reasons. Theresa MacPhail, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, writes that assigning her undergraduate students "only a few key scholarly texts," rather than a wide array of scholarly articles, means that "instead of reading more, [the students do] more research and writing." So far, she adds, "their understanding and application of difficult social-scientific concepts and ideas haven't seemed to dip."12 As long as readers have the right guide, Jacobs and MacPhail suggest, reading in reduction does not equal reductive thought.

Within the academy, the companion's centuries-long persistence may reflect its ability to expedite some of the intellectual activities we value most. Cambridge University Press advertises works in its "Companions to Literature" series by highlighting both their "comprehensive overview of their chosen topic" and their ability to "display and provoke lively and controversial debate."13 A jaded reader might argue—correctly—that academic presses churn out companions in part to offset the costs of scholarly monographs.14 Certainly, companions can seem to sell expertise cheaply. We may also fear their association, as works that foreground their reduction, with cribbing, general laziness, and worse. A scholar in my department recently observed that while she might consult a companion, she might not be quick to cite it; the bibliographies of many books and articles in literary studies bear out her claim. Yet read generously, Cambridge's ad suggests that companions simply help scholars hasten to the excitement of debate. The companion's enduring presence on our bookshelves—if no longer in our pockets—resists a myth of isolated labor. Instead, it makes visible how the practice of scholarship actually works: we enter into conversation with others and benefit from their guidance. To accept the companion's reductions is not a weakness so much as it is a choice to stop pursuing the illusion of total mastery and instead, as Jacobs reminds us, to allure ourselves into discovery.

Madeline L. Zehnder
University of Virginia
Madeline L. Zehnder

Madeline L. Zehnder is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. She is currently working on a project about portability in early American literature and material culture.


1. William S. Jacobs, The Student's Chemical Pocket Companion (Philadelphia: M. Carey, 1807), 5.

2. Based on a WorldCat search of book chapters and articles published from 2008 to 2018 that list "Jane Austen" as a subject.

3. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), i.

4. "vade-mecum, n." OED Online, December 2018, Oxford Univ. Press,

5. Mel Priestley, "Reviewing the New Oxford Companion to Wine," Vue Weekly, February 4, 2016,

6. See Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, expanded ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), 78; and Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001), 41–42.

7. To have "encyclopedic" knowledge of a topic is to assume a position of command.

8. Edward S. Casey, The World at a Glance (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2007), xiii.

9. Jacobs, Chemical Pocket Companion, 6.

10. Jacobs, Chemical Pocket Companion, 5.

11. Jacobs, Chemical Pocket Companion, 6.

12. Theresa MacPhail, "Are you assigning too much reading? Or just too much boring reading?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 27, 2019,

14. Stephen Lock, "Has the Companion a Future?" Medical History 46, no. 2 (2002): 268.

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