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  • Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics: A Twenty-First-Century Study of Readers and Bookshops in Southampton around 1900 by Simon R. Frost
  • Anna Lanfranchi
Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics: A Twenty-First-Century Study of Readers and Bookshops in Southampton around 1900 by Simon R. Frost SUNY PRESS, 2021, 396 PP. HARDCOVER, $95.00; PAPERBACK, $33.95 ISBN: 978-1-438-48351-1

Erudite and experimental at once, Simon Frost's Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics aims to offer a new interpretative key to the historical understanding of readers' dreams, drives, and desires as they browsed the shelf of a bookshop at the turn of the twentieth century. Through the case study of Southampton's book retail, with this new work Frost proposes a productive approach to the economy of symbolic goods that goes beyond the neoclassical economic model, unable in the author's opinion to describe the complexity of a spatially and politically situated experience such as the act of reading. By exploring "what happens when we treat books as commodities" (12), Frost redefines the book trade as a complex transactional network in which values are constantly reshaped and renegotiated through social interactions.

Structured in four parts, the book first portrays reading as a relational practice with an extensive review of theoretical and methodological approaches to economics and the cultural industries (part 1). The idea of an "efferent reading" (29)—an action that not only "consumes" but also provides readers with gains they "take away" from the text—is presented as the distinguishing element in nineteenth-century commodity culture. This applies in particular to the British book trade at the turn of the last century, stabilized by the regulatory effect of the Net Book Agreement (1900) and when the High Street "unknown public" always seemed to escape assumptions based on gender, class, and income.

The book-historical account of the port city of Southampton then closes in on bookselling, printing, and borrowing within the wider social and economic transformations the town underwent around 1900 (part 2). The working day, challenges, and strategies of an ideal English bookseller introduce the historical actors inhabiting the city book retail between 1870 and 1905 and forming a lively business environment for new and secondhand books alongside a variety of other goods (e.g., stationery).

The bookshop of Henry March and Owen Gilbert, featured on the book's cover, becomes the main character of this close-knit urban world. The shorter part 3 ("Five Visits to Gilbert's") encompasses arguably the most innovative and unorthodox methodological contribution of Frost's work—admittedly imaginative, though effective in evoking embodied and systemic reading occasions. Here, the thoughts, memories, and aspirations [End Page 212] of characters Henry, Rita, the Engineer, Sylvie, and Milbeya are described with "historically informed narrative realism" (193) as parts of the network of books, booksellers, and readers.

Finally, part 4 returns theoretically to the "political economy" shaping the exchange of symbolic goods (264), redefining entertainment and cultural consumption in a Latourian actor-network model. Different from the neoliberal market economy, the network is, according to Frost, able to encompass reading motives such as identity formation, sense of belonging, and a deeper understanding of reality. Moving away from Homo economicus, Homo narrans symbolizes socially linked individual readers who never finish reassigning values and meanings in an ecosystem where "economy" not only interacts with but also forms and in turn is formed by social, cultural, and political phenomena.

The continuity between Southampton's microhistorical case and our twenty-first-century economic landscape makes this book compelling and provocative reading. Engaging experts in book history, literary and cultural studies, and economics, Frost's work is an important addition not only to the scholarship on reading practices but more broadly to the social study of the formation, exchange, and circulation of culture in modern times. [End Page 213]

Anna Lanfranchi
University of Manchester