Click to enlarge

"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

John Sutherland

Paper Promises

How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain
By Leah Price (Princeton University Press 350pp 19.95)

Leah Price's point - very cleverly made - is that Victorians did many things with their reading matter other than read it. One of her more striking examples is of fashionable ladies selecting a book to carry on the basis that its binding (silk-board, preferably, never calf) would match their dress that day. Victorian children (and servants) had books inflicted on them 'to do them good', which never happened because they obstinately declined to turn the pages. Price is very entertaining on men's use of newspapers to create little zones of domestic, noli-me-tangere privacy. Books and newspapers have never been neutral information conduits. As Price puts it, signalling the points her own book will touch: 'Bought, sold, exchanged, transported, displayed, defaced, stored, ignored, collected, neglected, dispersed, discarded - the transactions that enlist books stretch far beyond the literary or even the linguistic.'

Price loves the far-fetched. So do I. An extraordinary number of books, for example, never make it to any reader's eye. Their destiny is the pulping mill. I have seen figures as high as 60 per cent of some print runs quoted in the trade magazines.

But is their existence wholly without utility? Their pulped remains (re-pulped if one's talking paperbacks) could go on to supply - who knows? - those self-righteously drab coffee filters that the eco-OK among us use of a morning. Before going off to the bog, perhaps, and that self-righteously unvelvety, prematurely browned ('recycled') paper.

Simon Eliot - the most lively of currently practising book historians - once suggested to me what seemed a brain-stretching connection between the disease patterns of the nineteenth century and the lifting of the last of the 'taxes on knowledge' in the early 1850s. The repeal sparked an explosion of penny-newspapers for the masses. Paper manufacture expanded by magnitudes. Until the 1850s, England had been racked with regular cholera epidemics. It was John Snow, with his iconic destruction of the Broad Street pump (thirty yards from the Literary Review offices), who is credited with banishing cholera by demonstrating that faecally contaminated drinking water was responsible. But so, too, was the smeared hand that prepared the supper or passed change and the unwrapped loaf in the bakery. The lifting of the last taxes on knowledge coincided with Joseph Bazalgette's laying down the London underground sewer and water systems. This meant the water closet and that, in turn, meant hugely greater need for toilet paper, rather than the finger and the shirt-tail.

Cholera receded. But then, perversely, another slower epidemic advanced: cherchez le papier. The public library, introduced in Manchester with much municipal self-congratulation in the early 1850s, was 'free', unlike 'leviathan' circulating libraries such as Mudie's and W H Smith's that catered to the middle classes. The lower classes lick their index fingers to turn the page. A quaint 'fumigator' in which Victorian public libraries could decontaminate their stock is illustrated in Leah Price's discussion of the disease-carrying book. Victorians were wedded to the 'miasmic' theory of disease. Yet it wasn't air but spittle that was the vector of the dreaded consumption.

I can recall, as late as the early 1950s, borrowing books from Colchester Public Library (a currently withered institution, alas) with the characteristic brown stain at the top of the recto. A little nature reserve for bacilli. I added my thoughtless saliva increment.

Eliot's is perhaps a thesis too far. But it would, for a certainty, appeal to Leah Price. It's a pity that she does not cast her net wider than 1837 to 1901. 'Field specialism' has turned academics into small allotment holders - Chinese farmers. Price's little paddy field is Victorianism. But, within those confines, she asks extraordinarily good questions with wider import. The biggest of them can be stated as: 'If books furnish a room, are they books or furniture?' (Or: is newspaper used as toilet paper still newspaper?)

If, as I have often enough, you teach a seminar in which the students, among their number, have six different editions of Middlemarch, they may be said to be studying the same text, but are they reading the same book? Does the difference matter? To pose the question historically: was a Victorian reading to his family from the four-volume Blackwood 1874 Middlemarch, with its emblazoned binding, generous leading, heavy rag paper, and loose typography, engaged in the same activity as the undergraduate reading the budget-priced, annotated, 10-on-12-point type, Penguin Classic paperback for an upcoming exam?

Price is fascinated by the 'thingness' of books and their occasions. She's very perceptive, for example, on evangelical 'tracts' that do-gooders such as Wilkie Collins's Miss Clack dropped, like holy hand grenades, wherever she went. And Price has a mission of her own, which extends evangelically beyond the borders of her Victorian field specialism. She wants her profession to 'get physical' which, as she sees it, means getting to grips with books as books.

It's a tall order. Academic literary criticism has, for the last eighty years, become hung up on 'textuality': intertextuality, paratextuality, subtextuality, contextuality - count the ways. If there is a motto generally subscribed to, it is Jacques Derrida's - Il n'y a pas de hors-texte ('there is nothing outside the text'). The whole profession is following the pipes of Pan(textuality) - Hamelin-style, Price would say.

'Text' is a noumenon. It does not exist materially, although it can be materialised in an infinite variety of ways (is the radio programme Book at Bedtime a book? Is the film of the book a book?). Price wants to refocus her peers' attention on actual, existent books - 'things', not their textual ghost. Things, that is, which fingers feel, eyes see, noses smell, and ears can hear fall on the floor.

I wish her luck in the mission. But I fear she will fail. And the reason, ironically, lies in the kind of book she herself offers us. It's a high-priced, finely crafted 'critical monograph' under the imprint of a distinguished university press. The bulk of the print run will dribble back to university libraries (a rapidly shrinking market, as digital equipment costs eat into book acquisition budgets). The fate of the critical monograph, once shelved, is, irrespective of its intrinsic scholarly worth, to be a dust-gatherer.

It doesn't matter. Critical monographs are not written to be widely or closely read - other than by tenure and promotion committees and those few working, rivalrously or supportively, in the same specialised field(let).

They do, however, have a life outside their hard covers. Parts of How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain will already have been disseminated at conferences - gatherings of hierophants speaking in their hieratic dialects as they wait, impatiently, to go up to the lectern themselves and have their fifteen minutes of David Lodgeian small-world fame.

The discourse at such conferences, and in most monographs (Price cites in her notes some 200, by my rough count), is akin to the dog whistle. Human ears can't hear it. To dip in at random, what does the following authoritative utterance by Price mean?

For Dickens as for Trollope, the moment of reading is as formally unrepresentable as thematically central. If visible, reading remains inauthentic; if meaningful, ineffable.

There's too much of this - which I see as mere credential waving - in a book that elsewhere has uncommonly brilliant things to say about the things Victorians did with their bookish things.

Readers will learn much from Price's monograph and admire her quixotic mission to wrench her profession's cast of mind into more sensible courses. But when I see how her cleverness is packaged - the kind of book it is itself, and where it's going - I have some second thoughts.

Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!

John Sutherland's last two books are The Lives of the Novelists (Profile, 2011) and The Dickens Dictionary (Icon Books, 2012).

Unable to read ini file.