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Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain

Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2012, 350 p. ISBN 978-0-691-11417-0
Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar
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Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2012, 350 p. ISBN 978-0-691-11417-0

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1What did the Victorians do with their books and newspapers—besides reading them? This is the question that Leah Price’s comprehensive, jargon-free study addresses. This lively, extremely well-documented analysis rarely depicts Victorians reading books, but rather shows them doing things with paper that involve treating it as a commodity, from wrapping fish or cheese to curling hair and lining trunks. From the unread book with the gorgeous binding that looked good on one’s coffee table and was meant to bear witness to the owner’s intellectuality, to the worn-out copy of a popular novel borrowed from a circulating library, Leah Price examines books as objects and treats us with a wide-ranging vision of their materiality in Victorian Britain.

2Books (real or dummies, as some of Dickens’s famously were), newspapers, tracts, waste paper—as opposed to text—are Leah Price’s subject matter. She deals with the social lives of books and paper in Victorian England, or more precisely with the ‘Victorian representations and perceptions of, and fantasies and illusions about, the circulation of books, not the circulation of books itself’ (36).

3Reading is therefore definitely not Price’s main concern, not only because a mental activity leaves very few traces, but also because when Victorian literature puts together characters and books, actually reading the books is perhaps the least likely ensuing action on the characters’ part: books are used to fend off shrewish wives, and the formative books exalted in Bildungsromane are more often remembered or dreamed of than read. Books can be read, true, but they tend rather to be thrown at people, as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield can testify; inflicted upon or read aloud to—which often amounts to the same thing; kept preciously under one’s mattress, stolen or defaced and finally placed in the kitchen (or worse), at the end of a cycle that goes from absorbing reading to absorbent paper.

4Chapter one, ‘Reader’s Block’, goes from ‘How to Handle Reading’ to ‘How to Read Handling’, Price’s main concern, and examines the gap between the symbolic value attached to literacy and the ever-growing contempt felt towards non-textual uses of books.

5Chapter two, ‘The Repellent Book’, focuses on books and newspapers as resolutely anti-social, used as they were to screen husbands from nagging wives or mothers from the demands of their families. The analysis expands from Trollope’s novelistic representations of divided spouses to a more general questioning of the hidden reasons behind the Victorians’ investment in the act of reading. A very interesting aspect of Price’s analysis here concerns the representation of women and books, from the superficial wife who buys books with bindings matching her clothes to the authentic reader who remains a Victorian ‘angel’ only if she discontinues her reading to respond to the demands of the people around her.

6In chapter three, ‘The Absorbent Book’, Price convincingly reexamines the myth of the hero(ine) of Victorian Bildungsromane as a being shaped by reading. She starts by showing that Dickens, Brontë and Eliot focus more on the interruption of the act of reading—due either to another character’s violent intrusion or to the hero(ine)’s daydreaming. The sub-genre constantly puts to the fore the simple idea that morally superior people will concern themselves with text, not books, and Price draws our attention to the fact that in the Victorian Bildungsroman, the materiality of books is either denied (poor orphans always find the means to get the books that will shape their inner selves) or stigmatized (books as objects are thrown at David and Jane, or made repellent once they are sullied by Uriah Heep’s slimy fingers).

7Chapter four examines ‘The Book as Agent’ and the resurgence by Evangelical writers of the ‘it-narrative’, an 18th-century sub-genre which tells the fictional autobiography of an object. Price shows here that when bibles start telling their own life-stories, the book as anthropomorphized object hovers uneasily between too little or too much handling: it is a prisoner if it is kept on a shelf, it becomes a veteran if it is worn-out or even a prostitute when it has been touched by too many hands. Price interestingly underlines the common points between the ‘it-narrative’ and the Bildungsroman: both take as their heroes helpless agents who are given the right to speak mainly to exalt reading as indispensable to the formation of moral human beings.

8Chapter five, ‘The Book as Burden’, addresses the circulation of junk mail and religious tracts and shows how this circulation put a final end to the Enlightenment and Romantic equation between reading and identity. Mechanization, the development of the Post, the increasing number (and activity) of religious institutions, the replacement of rags by wood-pulp in the fabrication of paper, all contributed to force-feeding Victorians with unwanted reading matter. Price shows how the process of inflicting reading matter on helpless readers reinforced gender, class, and age divisions: women, working-class people and the young rarely chose what they read.

9The question is taken up again in chapter six, ‘The Book as Go-Between’, which examines in detail the persistence and importance of a social division between masters and servants, between ‘readers’ and ‘dusters’. Price reminds us how wary educated Victorians were of sharing access to their bookshelves with their servants, or worse of reading books borrowed from circulation libraries, for fear they might spread germs and diseases.

10In chapter seven, ‘The Book as Waste’, Leah Price shows how Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (first serialized in 1849-1850) raises the question of the disposing of old books, tracts or newspapers at a time when paper being cheap to produce, dealing with the surplus of paper became an important economic issue. This final chapter deals with ‘wrapping, wadding, padding, lining’ and also therefore with the death of books, which lost all textual value when they started wrapping food or being associated with other bodily activities besides eating.

11Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain is a book teeming with thought-provoking analysis and packed with anecdotes that must be recommended to all lovers of books as texts and objects. It makes stimulating reading for all those who study the Victorian period and love Victorian novels. It forces us to reflect on the way we handle books, for example on the ideological implications of imposing reading on others. It is also an enjoyable text in which readers meet familiar figures, both historical and fictional, from Dickens, Eliot, Brontë, Collins, Martineau, to Mrs Pardiggle and Miss Clack. And finally, since for once it is important to say it, Price’s book is also a very pretty object that will look good on a coffee-table—once it has been read, of course.

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Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar, « Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 15 septembre 2019. URL :

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Isabelle Hervouet-Farrar

Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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