I trained back in the day of the day of the New Criticism, when The Well Wrought Urn and Practical Criticism were the exemplars of not only the best of approaches to literary study, they were, with their emphasis on close reading of text to the exclusion of all else — biography, history, politics — more often than not the only acceptable approach to understanding and evaluating literature. Books were important for what they contained, less so for themselves as objects. Students of literature concerned themselves with the containers as little as possible. There was criticism and there was bibliography, and criticism was king.
Book history was bibliography, and for more than a few budding Ph.D. candidates it was little more than a necessary evil. Why study the bottle, when the wine was the thing. This was before the day of literary theory, before the dawn of deconstruction, before the morning of gender studies, before the noon of reader response. Thinking changes when, for example, someone comes along and tells you that the bottle is not only worth talking about, but that it is in fact necessary to talk about it: “the medium is the message.” Clearly content is affected by its container, and that makes it important to study the container. Nonetheless it was the content that gives the container its importance.
Back in the day, perhaps — but ‘taint necessarily so, at least not any more.
Harvard University professor of English Leah Price explains why, at least in her view, in the Introduction to How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain: “Like most literary-historical arguments, mine has both a corrective and creative ambition. In negative terms, it seeks historical and critical distance from the heroic myth — whether Protestant, liberal, New Critical, or New Historicist — that makes textuality the source of interiority, authenticity and selfhood. In more positive terms, it seeks to recover stories that this myth overwrites: stories about women, children, and working-class or non-European men who remained to the material affordances of books and, therefore, to the stories in which books themselves figured as heroes.”
Of course the book is worth studying for its content, but it is also important to study it for other uses. Price identifies three general categories: reading, handling, circulating. In the 19th century, books — printed materials in general— served many different functions for many different people. A book may have represented one thing to a man who studied its content, another to a man who placed it on his library shelf and never bothered to cut its pages. It might have meant one thing to the wife sat with her needle work as her husband nodded over its pages, and another to the woman who laid it gently on her sofa table, to say nothing of the servant who dusted it, the tradesman who wrapped butter and cheese in its pages, the young lady who used them for curling papers.
Price’s study examines several samples of what 19th-century readers and non-readers did with books and the effects of those activities on the books themselves as well as its larger social context. Chapters consider things like the “Repellent Book,” which for example a husband uses as a means of avoiding conversation; and, the “Absorbent Book,” where a character derives a sense of self from a book.
She examines the “Book as Agent” by looking at narratives in which books become central characters (It-narratives). Her second section analyzes the “Book as Burden,” the “Book as Go-Between,” and the “Book as Waste.” She emphasizes the way books in all these roles function in relation to gender, class, and economic status.
This is a scholarly study. It is not aimed at a general audience. While Dr. Price writes with wit and precision, she also writes in what to the general reader may well read like a foreign language.
I am reminded of the first time I tried to read Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The translation may well have been English, but it could just as well have remained in French for all it meant to me. I wonder, if in some sense, academics sometimes use language to create their own version of the “repellent book.”
At any rate, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain raises interesting issues, especially in a world where the book as a physical object may be going the way of the 8-track, for the literary scholar and even an elderly disciple of New Criticism.