This year’s theme for National Library Week (April 14-20) is “Communities matter @ your library.” In light of this week and this year’s theme, we’re celebrating Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, a book that digs deep into the many uses, purposes, services of books and the ways in which whether displayed, defaced, exchanged, or discarded, printed matter participated, and still participates, in a range of transactions that stretches far beyond reading. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1 “Reader’s Block”:
Where the nineteenth-century general-interest press asked what uses of the book were acceptable, twenty-first-century scholars are likelier to ask what uses of the book are legible, and how the skills involved in reading texts (notably those possessed by literary critics and intellectual historians) differ from the skills required to describe objects (notably those possessed by all bibliographers and by some book historians). Closer to home, then, my question is how to situate literary interpretation vis-à-vis the social life of books more broadly understood—and also where different subcultures (from scholarly disciplines to religious traditions to political movements) have drawn the limits of that breadth.
Now that “the history of books and reading” has become a catchphrase, scholars in flight from lexical monotony refer to “the history of the book” interchangeably with “the history of reading.”31 It’s true that both demonize the same opponent: the idealism that literary history shares with the history of ideas—which should remind formalist critics that “history” is hardly the opposite term to “literature”). Yet the survey I’ve just offered of the metaphorization of “reading” and reliteralization of bibliographic terms suggests what gets lost in that lumping. Where late twentieth-century critics insisted that books are not the only thing that can be read, so early twenty-first-century scholars are rediscovering (like so many M. Jourdains) that reading is not the only thing that can be done to books. That some of those other operations can themselves be performed upon objects other than books creates a third methodological problem.
I spoke of a turn away from metaphor, but the opposite case could also be made: that where the old historicism within literary criticism once invoked a metonymic logic to discuss commissioning, writing, editing, printing, and reading—whether upstream as in textual notes or downstream as in reception histories—book historians have substituted something more like metaphor. Reading is compared to other forms of consumption, or writing to other manual practices, or copyright to other forms of property. When Daston brackets the page with a comet, she looks both backward—to the long tradition which exalts reading to an art that other interpretive practices can only hope to emulate—and forward: to new forms of scholarship that reduce the book to one object among many. Where intellectual historians once studied the note-taking habits of individual thinkers, Ann Blair and Peter Stallybrass instead analyze scholarly note taking side by side with commercial record keeping; where an earlier generation of “law and literature” scholarship examined the image of lawyers in Romantic poetry, William St Clair juxtaposes the development of copyright with the changing legal regimes governing the sale of pharmaceuticals; where critics once narrated authors’ alcoholism or analyzed the literary figure of the drunkard, Paul Duguid traces the history of authorial signature in parallel to the history of wine branding (Blair, “Note Taking”; Blair and Stallybrass; Duguid, The Quality of Information; St Clair). In cutting across different objects (books and ledgers, books and bottles, books and pills) to identify parallel practices, this research topples the text from its taxonomic pedestal.
In some contexts, certainly, verbal content trumps material medium: for someone in search of political information, a newspaper and a radio broadcast have more in common than do a newspaper and a piece of plastic wrap. In others, however, the reverse is true (someone trying to wrap a sandwich can use the newspaper interchangeably with the clingfilm more easily than with the broadcast). At some moments, as we’ll see in chapter 6, a servant’s meddling with her mistress’s books looks similar to eavesdropping on conversations, but at others it bears more resemblance to breaking a china vase. What’s more, those attributes that set the book apart from other objects need to be disentangled from those that set some books apart from others (for example, literary from nonliterary texts or good works of literature from bad); because even the most unreadable book still differs from nontextual objects in the way it’s priced, cataloged, and handled, the exceptionalism of the book should be no less visible to economists than to literary critics. By the same token, few of the issues I’ve mentioned so far are unique to the book: the logic that exalts reading copies while mocking coffee-table volumes shares its structure with contrasts between showy and serviceable clothing, or even between food addressed to the palate and that designed to please the eye.
If Victorian policy-makers grappled with the special status of the book—should printed matter be mailed at different rates from botanical cuttings? should books be taxed or priced differently from other commodities?—scholars today face analogous questions. Is literary-critical training a help and/or a hindrance to studying the book? How does a library differ from a museum? How should verbal evidence of reception be cross-checked with nonverbal traces? Should textual and material evidence be used to corroborate, to complicate, or even to contradict each other?
In thinking of National Library Week this year, keep in mind the life of books: their purposes throughout history and their impacts on societies that range far beyond the act of reading. Be sure to check out the Introduction to How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Enjoy the week at your local library!