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...