Sunday, July 15, 2012

Leah Price's "How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain"

Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University. Her books include The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel and the edited volume Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, and reported the following:
Page 99 discusses David Copperfield, and more specifically the role of reading and writing in the life of Dickens's hero and alter ego, David. This is one of many Victorian novels where readers identify with the protagonist on the grounds that he or she is also a passionate reader -- that his earliest memories are of sequestering himself with a book, which provides a refuge from an uncomprehending stepfamily and an unsympathetic outside world. If you look closely at Dickens's novel, though, what’s surprising is that the adults in David's stepfamily are never shown reading books, which they perceive only as the handiest thing for boxing a child's ears with, just as the evil stepfamily in Jane Eyre act as if the only thing books are fit for is to throw at your poor relation. Even more surprisingly, David's own most intense literary experiences come when he no longer owns any books: when he is forced to leave home and can only console himself by reciting aloud his memory of the books that he used to own, the stories swim most vividly into his mind. So, the novel drives a wedge between one understanding of books that sees them as physical objects defined by their weight, their heft, or their sharpness, and another that thinks of texts as abstract, disembodied sequences of words that are housed not in any material container but floating free in the human mind.

The subject of my book is the battle between those two models. Unlike most literary critics, I am interested in books as things -- as objects that you can display on your coffee table, hide behind on the subway, or use to wrap fish and chips with. Today, we tend to think of those uses of the book as trivial or vulgar or even wrong, and I wanted to understand how and when that came about. Until the end of the 18th century, most people took for granted that the physical characteristics of the book mattered as much as the words that it contained: when you bought a book, one of the things that you looked for was particularly thick and absorbent paper, because you knew that most books would end up in the privy. The problem isn't just that toilet paper didn't exist; it's also that, until paper began to be made from wood pulp in the second half of the 19th century, which is also the time when heavy taxes on paper designed to prevent riffraff from reading were finally lifted, paper was so expensive that books were valuable largely as raw material to be turned into scrap paper or wrapping paper once you had finished reading them. in the 19th century, therefore, people began to be embarrassed about any use of books that didn't involve reading: they began to make jokes about ladies who matched the binding of the Bible to the ribbon on their bonnet, or nouveaux riches who bought books by the yard and maybe even paid someone to crack their spines. The digital age didn’t invent virtual reality: the rise of cheap paper did.
Read an excerpt from How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue