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How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain
Leah Price

Winner of the 2014 Robert Lowry Patten Award, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Honorable Mention for the 2012 James Russell Lowell Prize, Modern Language Association

Paperback | 2013 | $26.95 | £21.95 | ISBN: 9780691159546
Hardcover | 2012 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691114170
360 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 18 halftones. 2 line illus.
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How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain asks how our culture came to frown on using books for any purpose other than reading. When did the coffee-table book become an object of scorn? Why did law courts forbid witnesses to kiss the Bible? What made Victorian cartoonists mock commuters who hid behind the newspaper, ladies who matched their books' binding to their dress, and servants who reduced newspapers to fish 'n' chips wrap?

Shedding new light on novels by Thackeray, Dickens, the Brontës, Trollope, and Collins, as well as the urban sociology of Henry Mayhew, Leah Price also uncovers the lives and afterlives of anonymous religious tracts and household manuals. From knickknacks to wastepaper, books mattered to the Victorians in ways that cannot be explained by their printed content alone. And whether displayed, defaced, exchanged, or discarded, printed matter participated, and still participates, in a range of transactions that stretches far beyond reading.

Supplementing close readings with a sensitive reconstruction of how Victorians thought and felt about books, Price offers a new model for integrating literary theory with cultural history. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain reshapes our understanding of the interplay between words and objects in the nineteenth century and beyond.


"How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain alternates between a dense critical unpicking of the ways in which books, reading and writing feature in Victorian fiction and non-fiction, and a strong cultural history of texts, writing and reading in social contexts. The long introductory section offers a detailed study of Victorian novelists' depictions of actions done to or with books, newspapers, or pamphlets."--David Finkelstein, Times Literary Supplement

"Leah Price's point--very cleverly made--is that Victorians did many things with their reading matter other than read it. One of her more striking examples is of fashionable ladies selecting a book to carry on the basis that its binding (silk-board, preferably, never calf) would match their dress that day. . . . Price is very entertaining on men's use of newspapers to create little zones of domestic, noli-me-tangere privacy. . . . Price asks extraordinarily good questions with wider import [and] has uncommonly brilliant things to say about the things Victorians did with their bookish things."--John Sutherland, Literary Review

"Price's work perches at the leading edge of a growing body of investigations into the history of reading."--Chronicle of Higher Education

"[H]ighly enjoyable, well researched and referenced."--Julia Peakman, History Today

"Leah Price has challenged every book historian, librarian, and reader of secular or spiritual scripture to think through the object we fondle or maul and the ways in which it circulates in whole and in pieces through our home and global economies. . . . [T]here's no doubt in my mind that this is a potent intervention in the study of material culture. No one who cares about books should miss handling and reading it."--Robert L. Patten, Review of English Studies

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Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations vii
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Chapter One: Reader’s Block 19
Part I: Selfish Fictions
Chapter Two: Anthony Trollope and the Repellent Book 45
Chapter Three: David Copperfield and the Absorbent Book 72
Chapter Four: It-Narrative and the Book as Agent 107
Part II: Bookish Transactions
Chapter Five: The Book as Burden: Junk Mail and Religious Tracts 139
Chapter Six: The Book as Go-Between: Domestic Servants and Forced Reading 175
Chapter Seven: The Book as Waste: Henry Mayhew and the Fall of Paper Recycling 219
Conclusion 258
Notes 263
Works Cited 293
Index 327

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