In How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, Leah Prices emphasizes the difference between our conception of a book and a text. The book, she asserts, is a material object handled, used, and reused whereas a text is something we elevate to the status of platonic ideas – it is something we internalize. To further demonstrate this difference, Price highlights how Victorian England is particularly sensitive about displaying and providing the price of books. The text garners more worth than the book as those who read books are admired over those who handle them, use them for ornamentation, and in times of need, for wrapping food and even wiping (9). However, when paper is taxed or the technology behind manufacturing it is just developing, the material worth of the book outweighs its textual content. The mid-nineteenth century experienced a few changes that made books a ubiquitous possession: a rise technological advances in manufacturing paper and an abolishment of taxes on paper (15). Thus, book handling is interpreted as inferior to reading as those who handle books are the female servants who dust bookshelves, the children who gaze at its illustrations, and the uncultured who decorate their libraries with books but never read them. Price uses Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example of how book handles are found contemptible . This is evident when Jane’s nasty cousin John Reed throws a book at her for using that which is not hers as a mere “dependent” (Bronte qtd. in Price 14).
There might be some disagreement between Price’s argument and Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Rose contends that the self-made reader was a part of a culture of “autodidacts” (17) and that she consumed classical works as a means of escaping and responding to social oppression. Price, however, concludes that the “self-made reader is as powerful a Victorian myth as the self-made millionaire” (86). Victorian novels, such as David Cooperfield and Jane Eyre, suggest that books, particularly classical and popular works, were rare and inaccessible commodities. For instance, Mr. Rochester is incredulous of the fact that Jane has never read Shakespeare, Byron, or even novels. Jane responds to Rochester’s interrogation by explaining, “‘Indeed no, Mademoiselle Barlieu would have been in fits at the bare thought (of reading French novels). And since I left them I have been too fully occupied to read for recreation” (Bronte qtd. in Price 87). Price explains that Victorian novels, particularly the bildrungsroman, “associate[s] wealth with anti-intellectualism, poverty with a love for literature” (87), but at the same time, “masks a reality” in which children depend on adults to read and the working class on wealthy employers. Thus, reading “requires a minimum of economic power” (87) demanding that one not only have the monetary means to perform the activity but also the time. Yet, Rose and Price are working with different types of historical evidence: Rose investigates the autobiographies and memoires of a neglected audience while Price investigates the fictional works of established authors. This might account for the discrepancies between their conclusions. To his credit, Rose qualifies his argument by admitting the potential bias present in his evidence as autobiographers tended to conflate and embellish their reading experience.
Another intriguing aspect of Price’s book is the attention she pays to the married couple. If a wife has taken up a novel in the company of her husband, against the advice of the conduct book, then she is contributing to the deterioration of their marital state. Alternatively, when a husband picks up a newspaper in the company of a nagging wife, he is using that object as a “prop for privacy” and dislocation (147). Books, as Price eloquently puts it, “Shield husbands from wives, can screen commuters from strangers, parents from crying children, children from demanding parents, clubmen from one another – or even masters from servants” (57). Anthony Trollop, she suggests, inverts this configuration by demonstrating how books allow for an “excuse for disattending” (67). The burden placed on women to be especially aware of their surroundings – in giving their husbands, children, and employees constant attention – might explain why they exhibited a stronger desire for escape by resorting to books.
Price gives us a perspective on the history of the book that underscores the material realities audiences experience with print. Her analysis provides an outlook we do not expect: when we come across a character in a book reading, we overlook the fact that the character might be handling a book rather than reading it, using it as a prop, for instance, to detach him or herself from other people or as a piece of decoration for his or her library. Price’s book is a thoroughly enjoyable scholarly read as it highlights the more banal and everyday aspects of people’s interactions with reading and books in the nineteenth century.