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.
Leah Price is professor of English at Harvard University. She is the author of The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel.