Excerpt: 'How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain' by Leah Price


‘The Book Shop’, from The Book of Shops, Francis Bedford Donkin, 1899

From Chapter 1: Reader’s Block

How to Handle Reading

Bought, sold, exchanged, transported, displayed, defaced, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, dispersed, discarded—the transactions that enlist books stretch far beyond the literary or even the linguistic. Frustration first made me wonder where that range begins and ends, for among all those uses, reading elicits the most curiosity and leaves the least evidence. There’s a reason that book historians have gravitated toward tearjerkers and pornography: like dolls that cry and wet their pants, past readers come to life through secretion. Yet with the exception of the happy few who work on genres that elicit a measurable somatic response, any reception historian will sooner or later be maddened by the low proportion of traces left in books that are verbal. For every pencil mark in the margin, ten traces of wax or smoke; for every ink stain, ten drink spills.

The book can be used as a napkin for food, a coaster for drink, a device for filing, or (especially in eras where paper was expensive) a surface on which to scribble words only tenuously related to the print they surround. As late as 1897, a manual titled The Private Library still needed to sneer that “books are neither card-racks, crumb-baskets, or receptacles for dead leaves” (Humphreys 24). In earlier eras, traces of the hands through which a book had passed formed an expected and even valued part of its meaning; over the course of the nineteenth century, that practice gradually retreated to particular subcultures: botanists using encyclopedias as devices to store and organize pressed flowers; hobbyists “Grangerizing” texts with carte-de-visite daguerreotypes, or, less systematically, books—and not only cookbooks—bearing, Hansel-and-Gretel- like, a trail of crumbs (H. J. Jackson, Marginalia 186; Garvey).

Mental actions prove harder to track than manual gestures, human traces that are not intentional, let alone textual, let alone literary. From evidence of reading to nonevidence of reading to evidence of nonreading: those bodily acts that both accompany and replace reading, whether licking a page or turning down a corner, should provide historians of the book with more than a consolation prize. Like the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the book with uncut pages constitutes evidence too. As we’ll see in chapter, such negative evidence can carry forensic weight, as when a bible’s pristine condition “bears witness” against its owner. It was precisely in order to stave off such testimony that Flann O’Brien proposed (tongue in cheek) a “Buchhandlung” service to break in libraries bought by the yard.

The spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark . . . , not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains. (22)

In my nightmares, these are the books I’m studying.

Scholarly populism leads logically enough to inverting the traditional focus on production over use: even outside of textual studies, a historian of technology can axiomize that “the majority have always been mainly concerned with the operation and maintenance of things and processes; with the uses of things, not their invention or development” (Edgerton xv). For scholars as for the secular novelists discussed in the next two chapters, however, reading is harder  to document than handling—let alone than writing. If book history began as a supply-side enterprise focused on publishing and printing, it may be because consumption generates less of the hard evidence that can lift a discipline out of humanistic impressionism  into social-scientific rigor. Conversely, even as literary critics shifted their focus from the authorial exception to the readerly rule, reader-response theorists and reception historians alike continued to study the text as a linguistic structure, at the expense of the book as a material thing. Only in the past few decades have those developments converged. On the one hand, book historians turned their attention from production to circulation, from printing to reprinting, from genetic criticism of authors’ manuscripts to cultural criticism of readers’ annotations; on the other, reader-response theorists have followed the rest of the literary-critical profession on its trek from the abstract to the concrete, from the “history” represented or refracted within the text’s verbal content to the “history” of the book itself. In both camps, though, an investment in textual interpretation that runs as deep among intellectual historians as among literary critics has distracted both from the wide range of nontextual and sometimes even noninterpretive (which doesn’t mean noninterpretable) uses to which the book is put. Is book history a subset of textual interpretation or vice versa?

Literary Literalism

What exactly would it mean to study books without privileging reading? Any answer remains slippery, even (or especially) for scholars who, by definition, spend their lives surrounded by books. Within literary theory, even as successive aspects of mid-twentieth-century symptomatic reading come under attack—its adversarial stance (Eve Sedgwick’s “recuperative reading”), its professional self-differentiation (Michael Warner’s “uncritical reading”), its granularity (Franco Moretti’s “distant reading”), the wedge it drives between surface and depth (Elaine Freedgood’s “metonymic reading” and Sharon Marcus’s “just reading”)—a familiar noun anchors each new adjective (Sedgwick; Warner, “Uncritical Reading”; Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees; Freedgood; Sharon Marcus, Between Women). It would be a false parallelism to dub the method illustrated in the pages that you’re about (I hope) to read “logistical reading,” for my target is not a particular kind of reading so much as the primacy of reading itself.

Late twentieth-century literary critics are not alone in overinvesting in reading. Contemporaneous “disciplines from political science to anthropology, and from economics to legal and juridical studies,” in Fredric Jameson’s words, took “as [their] model a kind of decipherment of which literary and textual criticism is the strong form” (297). Nor is this phenomenon limited to that intellectual-historical moment. Although literary theory lasted barely more than a decade as queen of the disciplines, its reign was both foreshadowed and outlasted by a more diffuse tradition in which interpreting the book of Nature (or, in Clerk Maxwell’s metaphor, the magazine of nature) was assimilated to reading—a verb that itself began as a synonym for “interpreting” before it narrowed into its current textual sense. The book of nature, but also the book of culture: in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin enjoined us to “read the sculpture. Preparatory to reading it, you will have to discover whether it is legible (and, if legible, it is nearly certain to be worth reading) . . . Thenceforward the criticism of the building is to be conducted precisely on the same principles as that of a book” (230). From 1918 onward, as the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, a shirt can even be “read” for lice.

In 1865, Our Mutual Friend already mocked the indiscriminancy of what Eugene Wrayburn called “that very word, Reading, in its critical use”: “An actress’s Reading of a chambermaid, a dancer’s Reading of a hornpipe, a singer’s Reading of a song, a marine painter’s Reading of the sea, the kettle-drum’s Reading of an instrumental passage, are phrases ever youthful and delightful” (Dickens, Our Mutual Friend 605). A novel that obsessively plays the symbolic value of literacy against the ubiquity of nonalphabetic “signs” also juxtaposes a reductively material perspective on book-objects (as when the narrator’s description of the Veneerings’ library stops short at the “backs of the books” in their “bran-new bindings”) with the more expansive metaphor that allows Eugene to speak of Mortimer’s “reading of my weaknesses” and the narrator to describe Mrs. Lammle “reading” Twemlow or Riah learning to “read” his master’s face (605, 263, 605, 281, 636). In the second case, to “read” means not only to translate the twitches of an eyebrow, but also to vocalize the wishes being extrapolated from those signs, as if an expression could be read aloud. The same metaphoric drift erases the difference be- tween book and corpse (as when the narrator compares the morgue to a whitewashed library) or book and flame (as when Charlie compares the way his sister looks at the hearth to the way he looks at printed pages).

Dickens expands on Bagehot’s remark that in his novels “London is like a newspaper” by adding that “the streets being, for pupils of [Charley’s] degree, the great preparatory Establishment in which very much that is never unlearned is learned before and without book” (Bagehot 468).

A century before the rise of cultural studies, then, the alphabetic practices inculcated by formal schooling supplied a template for everyday observation, as well as for what Lorraine Daston has called “other ways of making sense of objects quite different from the manuscript or printed page—the morphology of a plant, the trajectory of a comet, the slide under a microscope, the ‘reading’ of an instrument. This would have been especially the case for those who—for reasons of class, gender, and the cultural status of literacy—would have learned bookish skills before or to the exclusion of manual ones” (444). Daston achieves more distance than Jameson from the logic that both describe, for the word “before” slyly inverts the received wisdom that positions manual skills as a given, textual operations as a supplement. Yet in casting physical gestures as the alter- native to mental operations, she leapfrogs over the manual dimension of reading itself: books handled, pages turned. Like Jameson’s “model,” moreover, Daston’s “template” remains double-edged: both endow writ- ten texts with exemplarity at the price of stripping them of specificity.

After the cultural turn, however, that age-old balance of trade shifted. Literary critics now look to other fields not for raw materials but for methodological tools. Where the humanistic social sciences once borrowed literary-critical tricks to interpret nontextual objects (“Reading a Mid-19th-Century, Two-Cylinder Parlor Stove as Text”), literary critics today mine other disciplines—bibliography, history of science, even archaeology—for a vocabulary in which to describe the nontextual aspects of a particular category of material object: books. Instead of “reading” sewer systems, critics now smell leather bindings. Scholars who once “read” the stock market now tabulate paper prices.

In intellectual as much as literary history, the hermeneutics of suspicion has given way to a poetics of deflation. Oxymoronic subfields like “thing theory” and oxymoronic titles like Robert Darnton’s The Business of Enlightenment, D. F. McKenzie’s Printers of the Mind, or Elaine Freed- good’s The Ideas in Things drag ideas into the marketplace, the mind down to the level of the body. In the process, scholars change from the freest of associators into the most slavish of idiots savants. In a discipline that prides itself on discerning hidden depths, superficiality shocks like a purloined letter. Even the repressed is dragged down to earth when Henry Petroski notices that in the list of goods that he brought to Walden Pond, Thoreau omits the one whose trace it constitutes: a pencil. Once, a writing instrument would have stood for something less speakable; now, self- reference finds its home in an everyday tool.

A dogged or even mulish taste for the mundane, the contingent, and the simpleminded finds its only aesthetic outlet in puns. Writing from the “margins” gave way to writing in the margin (adversaria provide much of the richest book-historical evidence). The old hermeneutic refrain “it is no accident that” was shunted aside by a new interest in paratextual “accidentals.” Isabel Hofmeyr reinvested postcolonial catchwords like “stereotype” and “cliché” with their typographical weight (Hofmeyr 105). Research on the mechanics of writing put the bureau back into bureaucracy; research on the embodied labor of data entry put the digits back into digital; geographers took “space” to refer to the layout of the page, not a concept represented within it. And Peter McDonald retranslated the slogan “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” into a claim about tipped-in pages (“Ideas of the Book” 222–23). By foregrounding the technical sense of Derrida’s term, McDonald defines the text by contradistinction to the book, not the world. The dethronement of reading requires an assault upon metaphor.

Bookish Bathos

At one extreme, those professions—from sociologists to linebackers— who dignify their job by claiming to “read” something other than a text; at the other, those populations—from decorators to bibliographers— whom others mock for putting books to some use other than reading. This isn’t to say that individuals fall squarely into either of those camps. Even as Dickens’s writings (chapter 3 will suggest) aspired to the first position, his decor tilted toward the second. Our Mutual Friend’s critique of the extension of “reading” to cover matter other than print inverts its author’s interest in unreadable books. Veneering-like, Dickens lined his study with dummy spines, for which he composed titles like History of a Short Chancery Suit (in twenty-one volumes) or Cat’s Lives (in nine).

Pointing upward to the aristocratic tradition of trompe l’oeil libraries, the dummy spines also point backward and downward to a working life that began in the pasting of labels, not even onto the spines of books, but only onto blacking-bottles.

Like the twentieth-century use of “reading” to designate nonverbal operations, the literalist backlash against that metaphor has a long history, one that stretches from Dickens’s dummy spines to present-day literary theorists’ wordplays and present-day software designers’ jokes. In a 1995- era user interface dubbed Microsoft Bob, where icons of doors, rolodexes, and typewriters could be clicked on—prefiguring the metaphors of “folder” and “notebook” that now order our virtual desktops—only the Encyclopedia whose bound volumes were displayed on the bookshelf was inert. A click brought up the placeholder message “Note: This is a decorative object. It does not start any programs or do anything special.” Once “content” becomes available online, the only place left for its erstwhile containers is the coffee table. Two decades later, one wall in Google’s Cambridge office is lined with hollowed-out spines of disbound books, like taxidermists’ trophies attesting a successful slaughter. In a nod to the tradition of dummy spines, a cluster of yellow spines has been sliced from Wiley’s “For Dummies” series.

To notice that books are things is, literally, for dummies. My corny pun finds its precedent in a midcentury issue of the Dublin University Magazine:

Meeting one day an author newly-fledged, and greatly elated by the hit of his literary first-born, [Daniel O’Connell] shook him heartily by the hand.
“Well, my dear fellow, I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your book; I have seen something extremely good in it.”
“What was it—eh?” said the delighted author, rubbing his hands and blushing.
“A mutton pie, my dear fellow,” replied the Liberator, chuckling slyly. (“Railway Literature” 280)

Pivoting on conceptual and spatial senses of “in” while reendowing “some- thing” with its literal force, the joke casts the book’s content as food, not words—and its users as bodies, not minds. That ethnic slur draws on a long tradition of Irish bulls. The fall from text to book can just as easily, however, be pinned to gender. When the title character of F. E. Paget’s neoquixotic Lucretia; or, The Heroine of the Nineteenth Century (1868) burns the house down in “volumes of smoke” by reading novels that a male character terms “inflammable trash,” the misogynistic joke hinges on the tension between figurative and literal meanings of “volume” and “flame” (18, 22). Or, if not to gender, to rank, as when a cockney clerk remarks that a servant finding the fragments of a letter lying in the grate “must have been very much gratified with the warmth of the epistle” (Crowe 76). Or, if not to rank, to race, as in an American jokebook of 1871:

Army Chaplain. “My young coloured friend, can you read?”
ontraband. “Yes, sah.”
rmy Chaplain. “Glad to hear it. Shall I give you a paper?”
ontraband. “Sartain, Massa, if you please.”
rmy Chaplain. “Very good. What paper would you choose, now?”
ontraband. “Well, massa, if you chews, I’ll take a paper ob terbacker. yah! yah!” (The Railway Anecdote Book 213)

Or to age: when Mr. Brownlow observes Oliver Twist surveying the books lining the walls of his study, the workhouse boy notices what a propertied adult doesn’t.

“You shall read them, if you behave well,” said the old gentleman kindly; “and you will like that, better than looking at the outsides, that is, in some cases; because there are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”
“I suppose they are those heavy ones, sir,” said Oliver, pointing to some large quartos, with a good deal of gilding about the binding.
“Not always those,” said the old gentleman, patting Oliver on the head, and smiling as he did so; “there are other equally heavy ones, though of a much smaller size. How should you like to grow up a clever man, and write books, eh?”
“I think I would rather read them, sir,” replied Oliver.
“What! wouldn’t you like to be a book–writer ?” said the old gentleman.
Oliver considered a little while; and at last said, he should think it would be a much better thing to be a bookseller; upon which the old gentleman laughed heartily, and declared he had said a very good thing, which Oliver felt glad to have done, though he by no means knew what it was. (Dickens Oliver Twist 107)

Insides and outsides of books, figurative and literal senses of “heavy,” writing and selling: the dichotomies  mapped  onto the difference between gentlemen and paupers or adults and children break down only in laughter.

No use claiming novelty for these jokes: as we’ll see at the end of this book, their lineage stretches back to Roman satire. But they cluster in different genres at different moments. In the early nineteenth century, bookish puns migrate from the book review, to the comic press, to the triple-decker realist novel. In the genre that (Jakobson tells us) replaces metaphor by metonymy, the reliteralization of dead metaphors takes on a particular force: the novel’s formal partisanship of the literal over the figurative and the concrete over the abstract finds its strongest thematic corollary in the bathetic substitution of material book for verbal text (Jakobson). In Vanity Fair, the illustration of George lighting his cigar with a letter from Amelia is captioned “Lieutenant Osborne and His Ardent Love-Letters.” In the figurative sense that the caption leads us to expect, the adjective would have implied romantic passion; in the literal sense that sinks in once we see the illustration, practicality if not coxcombery.

In a culture where page is to paper as ideal is to real, the novel will establish its realism not only by contrasting the content of high-flown literary texts with a more mundane reality (the older quixotic move), but also by replacing textuality tout court with a materiality that, like charity, begins at home—that is, that begins with the book in our hands.

Generic disillusion traditionally tracks social debasement: romance is to the real as Dulcinea to a cowherd. In the nineteenth century, the lower orders reject abstraction as much as idealism.

The prominence of servants in these jokes reflects their combination of material access to, and intellectual or political unfitness for, literature. The Yellowplush Papers, which Fraser’s commissioned from Thackeray in 1837, are narrated by a “littery” footman who quotes an Irish journalist praising the Cabinet Cyclopaedia as a “litherary Bacon.” Thackeray’s pun on “beacon” can replace metaphorical enlightenment by literal food, or literature by litter, only because it occurs in the mouth of an Irish hack as quoted by an English servant. From study to kitchen, from lofty brainwork to footmen below-stairs: in ventriloquizing a servant literalizing his masters’ language, Thackeray draws on the occupational puns already elaborated in an 1830 pamphlet satirizing the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’s ambition to publish for the lower orders.

Shakespeare and Milton they supply
That those who run may read; A circulating library
It may be call’d indeed.

. . .

Meanwhile the butler, worthy man
So snug o’er his o-port-o,
Enjoys the ‘life of sherry-dan,’
Appropriately in quarto.
(Moncrieff 16, 19, 32)

Each stanza displaces an intellectual abstraction by its material corollary— whether culinary or bibliographical hardly matters. In overlaying the mind/body distinction with the passage from figurative to literal language, the poem associates lower-class pseudoliteracy with the book’s physical format and commercial transmission. It’s true enough that the SDUK literalized the metaphor of “enlightenment” when it campaigned against window tariffs as a material obstacle to reading in working-class homes: the pun becomes a political platform.

Mind/body puns proliferate at the moment when those classes who use books for pie lining or sandwich wrapping were beginning to identify themselves as readers. F. B. Doveton makes larder to library as literal to figurative:

I lost my Bacon t’other day—could anything be harder? My cook had taken it by stealth—I found it in the Larder. (21)

Meat links readers’ bodies with books’ binding more than would, say, the observation that Leaves of Grass is printed on esparto grass. The digital-era metaphor of “spam” can be traced back to the era of pigskin bindings: even more than Lamb’s name, Bacon’s lent itself to cheap jokes. Irving Brown’s “How a Bibliomaniac Binds His Books” ends thus:

I’d like my favourite books to bind
So that their outward dress
To every bibliomaniac’s mind
Their contents should express.

. . .

Intestine wars I’d clothe in vellum,
While pig-skin Bacon grasps . . .
Crimea’s warlike facts and dates
Of fragrant Russia smell;
The subjugated Barbary States
In crushed Morocco dwell.
(G. White 21–22)

When Victorian essayists quote Bacon’s aphorism that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested,” they reverse the logic of the dummy spine that Thomas Hood devised for a library staircase at Chatsworth: “Pygmalion. By Lord Bacon” (W. Jerrold 258). Bacon had changed the tongue from an organ that literally affects the book (licking a finger before it turns the pages, for example) to the vehicle of a metaphor for disembodied mental acts. Hood changed “Bacon” instead from the name of a great mind to the name of an animal’s body.

Because puns on bookbinding pit materialist against idealist conceptions of culture, my insistence on belaboring the obvious simply follows the cue of my primary sources. The same could be said of my discipline as a whole: just as Victorian puns prefigure the tension later developed by critics’ plays on words like “stereotype” and “hors-texte,” so Victorian realist fiction shares its temperamental cast with late twentieth- and early twenty- first-century book history. Both are detail-oriented, business-minded, and petty; both are called upon to integrate descriptions of material details with generalizations about social institutions; both are inclined to privilege the mundane over the ideal, the local over the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract. The overrepresentation of realist fiction among book historians’ case studies betrays a craving for role models.

If we recognize twenty-first-century book historians as the heirs to the realist novel, then twenty-first-century literary critics look more like heirs to the sermon. From Protestant theology, secular explicators have learned to prize spirit over matter—and, by extension, the inwardness of selves produced by reading over the outward circumstances of bodies handling books. Where the realist novel found its foil in Evangelical tracts, book historians could find theirs in close reading.

Excerpted from How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price. Copyright (c) 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted with permission.