How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

May 31, 2012

Halfway through reading this monograph I instinctively did what Leah Price says people do with books: I used it as a prop to fend off the unwanted overtures of a friendly tourist on a train. That is, I hid behind it, although in fiction more aggressive readers enforce their will by throwing books at people who invade their privacy at an inconvenient moment. Stranger still, my rejected travelling companion looked for company across the aisle and found it in a Christian conference delegate absorbed in her Bible. Given that much of Price's unusual study is about the circulation of Bibles and tracts, more freely given than read, and the social interactions built by texts as barriers or bridges between readers, there was something uncannily apt about my own reading experience.

Price's study is essentially about books as commodities. She shows how the Victorians not only read them but also wrapped their cheese in pages of discarded tracts, and lined trunks with the leaves of sensation novels, as Edmund Gosse famously recounts in Father and Son (1907). They also worried about their servants sneakily reading the books they were only supposed to be dusting, although when servants were given tracts they were more likely to ignore them, or put them to baser uses. As she argues, it is difficult for novels to represent the interiority of reading. Even where fictional characters such as Jane Eyre and Maggie Tulliver are shown apparently devouring books, they are more likely to be daydreaming: hence handling displaces reading as Price's chief concern, with the emphasis on paper, bindings, sales and gifts, rather than losing oneself in passionate engagement with plot and character.

Differentiating between "book" (the physical object) and "text" (the words), Price explores the interconnections between the three operations of reading, handling and circulating, which perhaps most powerfully come together in the history of the "it-narrative", the fictional autobiography of an inanimate object such as a coin or a Bible, which makes its way in the world, gathering experience, dirt and dog-ears in about equal proportions. Passed from owner to owner like Black Beauty, books are indeed treated as cavalierly as horses, being anthropomorphised into prisoners and slaves, unloved, unwanted and, worst of all, unread. Price is a master of pithy comments that constantly remind us of the parallel but contrasting journeys of novels, tracts, fictional protagonists and real people. Equally despised at much the same period of literary history, both novel and tract try to mask their didacticism with a veneer of entertainment, but whereas "those who love a novel want to hold onto it ... those who love a tract want to give it away".

Price sees books as brokering relationships, mostly top-down in class terms, until the introduction of public libraries democratises access, albeit at the risk of contaminating the pages and spreading disease. Marie Corelli thought that handling library books was like "picking up eatables dropped by someone else in the road". Books in fact, according to Price, can have a livelier social life than people, and certainly a more promiscuous one. While at one extreme, the dressed-up Bibles with nowhere to go are literally left on the shelf, the serially owned and read are little better than prostitutes, ending up not so much as tomorrow's fish and chip wrappings as victims of Jack the Ripper, cruelly eviscerated and left for waste.

In tracing the book's journey, Price mostly evokes a downward spiral. After all, the more a book is read, the more battered it becomes: its fate only marginally better than the volume of uncut leaves which, so to speak, dies a virgin. This comparison between books and their owners is not merely fanciful. As Price wittily shows, David Copperfield, bound by his placard proclaiming "Take care of him. He bites", can be read like a book, and indeed looks remarkably like one to the school community. It would have been good to see more about other kinds of propagandist reading, such as political tracts and secular advice books, in this densely detailed, somewhat repetitive study, which focuses quite narrowly on parallels between novels and religious publications. That said, it tells a compelling "it-narrative" of its own about the ideological ways in which we handle books and impose them on others - in which there is doubtless a lesson for those of us who do this for a living.

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

By Leah Price. Princeton University Press. 360pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780691114170. Published 9 May 2012

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