THERE HAS NEVER BEEN a more apt time to write a book about books. If the rise of digital media hasn’t yet killed off the physical book as we know it, there is a widespread feeling that its days are numbered. Against this backdrop, a purely materialist micro-history of books would have been interesting enough, but Leah Price has gone one step further. Her subject is, as she explains, not the circulation of books per se, but “Victorian representations and perceptions of, and fantasies and illusions about, the circulation of books.” How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain is therefore a study of literature in literature, a resource for the bibliophile and the historian alike.
In the nineteenth century, perhaps even more so than today, a person’s relationship to literature was bound up in questions of an essentially political nature; as vessels for — and emblems of — cultural capital, books took their place in a system of signifiers that both reflected and reinforced divisions of gender, class, race and religion. So, for example, the kissing of a Bible during mass would mark Catholics out as fetishists on a par with non-Europeans. The latter’s respect for the material book was associated with backwardness, engaging in what the Renaissance scholar James Kearney has called “a fundamental category mistake that separated superstitious and credulous others (none-whites, non-Christians, Catholics, the lower classes, and women) from the rational European man.”
At times, Price’s Victorian Britain feels like an endearing caricature of marital bliss, with literature forming a sort of buffer between married couples often ill at ease in one another’s company: husbands cold-shoulder their wives with newspapers at the dinner table, and are in turn fobbed off at bed time — just as he’s feeling amorous, she becomes engrossed in a novel. Tellingly, the reading woman was never quite credited in the same way as her male counterpart. Price observes a striking similarity between, on the one hand, “a model in which children are pictured licking the page or stacking books into towers and another in which children are credited with a particular pure and disinterested absorption in texts,” and, on the other, “the belief that women are particularly rapt readers and the suspicion that women will arrange volumes by colour, match bindings to their outfit, or otherwise reduce the book to a material thing.”
Though rigorously academic, Price’s book is also disarmingly humorous, a veritable goldmine of puns and linguistic whimsy. But when you pull away from the historical context, it doesn’t feel like such a different world from today. Literary culture may have changed, but many of the conflicts and contradictions remain. Price relates the testimony of a young thief, of how his brother was driven to distraction by a page spread in a shop window; the conclusion was cut off by the page break, prompting the boys to lie awake “wonderin’ and wonderin’ what was over leaf.” He steals a hammer in order to raise funds to buy the thing, and sets himself on a life of crime. The pattern prefigures the so-called “acquisitive looting” that characterized the large-scale rioting in London (and elsewhere in the United Kingdom) in August 2011. People — whether they are women, the working class, or whoever — want to get their hands on culture, whether this means finding out “what was over leaf” or getting hold of the latest smart phones (and with all due respect to the Jonathan Franzens of this world, yes, a smart-phone is culture, because without it you’re out of the loop).
Despite the obvious continuities, few readers will get through How to do Things with Books without feeling at least a pang of nostalgia for the printed product, which is fast losing its singular place in the social psyche. Because we don’t even have to go as far back as the nineteenth century to see the world Price describes. It was, in some senses, still alive and well as recently as the mid-1990s; that curious object-fetishism, which obtained in relation to vinyl records and CDs as well as books, was integral to the process whereby one first fell in love with an art form. Something in the texture of our lives — as readers and as listeners — has changed forever.