Recently I read Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. According to the publisher, this book is mostly for fans of Victorian literature and bookworms of the 21st century. And they did a really great job charming booklovers: the book looks amazing, with a dustjacket covered with paper roses, and the actual cover bound in cream linen with silver letters on the spine. It looks amazing.
The back cover promises a study of how books were used as missiles, doorstops, food wrapping, or spouse-ignoring devices. But don’t be fooled! This book will not teach you that most fish were wrapped in pages of Great Expectations, or that most fires were kindled with Jane Eyre. Despite the light summary text, this is in fact an academic study on how books were perceived for different groups and classes, what functions books would have on both a practical and intellectual level, and how books influenced people in Victorian Britain. The book is definitely not bedtime-reading material, being fully outfitted with footnotes and very long sentences. It does feature some personal anecdotes and the author speaks of herself at times, which keeps the book light and pleasant.
Nowadays in the Western world, even though not everyone likes to, almost everyone is able to read. This was different in the Victorian Era. There were large groups of people who could not read at all, and large groups of people who aspired to read, in order to appear higher-classed. This had some interesting effects: books warning their readers to handle it properly and not dirty it, discussions about whether young girls should read, and if so, what should they read? Lower classes moving from using books as sandwich wrappers to identifying themselves as readers. People buying books or dummy spines for the sole purpose of appearing to be well-read (Dickens, the book says, lined his study with dummy spines, for example “cat’s lives” (in nine volumes).)
A wide variety of themes is explored in the various chapters. In the chapter The book as go-between, the problem of servants reading books is studied. The chapter talks about the fear of books blurring social distinctions, of making servants forget their work or of them treating books poorly. And how do you get your wive to dust the books but not read them?
In The book as burden, unwanted literature is discussed. Over time, the book changed from an expensive, wonderful, wanted item into something that could be unwanted and rejected, for example certain religious tracts or Victorian junk mail.
The repellent book talks about how books can be used to avoid company or conversation. It speaks of people pretending to read in order to not be disturbed, and of marriages in which the man reads a paper and the woman reads a novel.
All in all, I thought this book was a very interesting read, nicely written and very well illustrated. I would definitely recommend it to all book-lovers and students of Victorian literature. When you know how books were viewed, received and treated at the time of publishing, it will definitely give you a greater understanding of any Victorian text you’re studying.
You can read an excerpt here: http://erb.kingdomnow.org/leah-price-how-to-do-things-with-books-excerpt/
You can purchase the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9714.html