How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain by Leah Price - review by John Sutherland

John Sutherland

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How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain


Princeton University Press 350pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

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

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