Early in the novel that bears his name, David Copperfield recalls the one thing that kept him happy as a child: books. His father was dead, his stepfather cruel, but in his tiny upstairs bedroom he found comfort in literary characters like Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. Copperfield would picture himself as a favorite hero or fantasize about faraway lands. Every night, as the other children played outside, he would sit in bed—“reading,” in his words, “as if for life.”
When we think about reading today, we do so in Copperfield’s terms: It’s an act we perform alone and with imagination, one that helps us nurture and understand ourselves. But Leah Price, one of Harvard’s most influential English professors, believes this idealized version of reading has kept us from understanding something just as important: the role books have actually played in society.
Price has made a career out of studying books creatively—examining them as physical objects that reveal something about their authors and publishers, or tracing how their earliest readers pulled them apart and put them back together in anthologies. In her new book, “How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain,” she pushes this notion even further. In fact, Price argues that literary critics should stop assuming that reading is the most important thing people do with books.
It might seem strange for an English professor to downplay the importance of reading. After all, the written word stands at the center of her discipline. But for Price, prying apart the ideas of “reading” and “books” is essential if we want to appreciate how literature matters in the broadest sense. In her new book, she traces some enormous changes in the Victorians’ technology and culture of books—and finds in those changes the roots of our own infatuation with the relationship between reader and book. It’s no accident that Dickens had Copperfield champion a particular kind of reading, and the anxieties of his era still shape the way we think about books today.
In fact, though Price’s research is set 150 years ago, its insights have a particular resonance right now. Like the Victorians, we’re at a pivotal moment in the technology and culture of literature: For the first time in 500 years, we’re going to see if reading can survive without the book.
Tucked alongside Harvard’s famous Widener Library is another, smaller building: Houghton Library, where the university keeps its rarest books and manuscripts. A few weeks ago, Price spent an afternoon there demonstrating just what you can learn by not reading a book.
“When I was in grad school in the 1990s,” Price says, “literary theorists considered it a bit vulgar to think about books as objects. It was something librarians did.” But more and more literary critics began spending time in libraries like Houghton, and they began emerging with new information on how books were produced and consumed. They began to give us a better sense of how book readers and book writers actually operated. Now Price wants to see what we can learn about another group—what we might call “book users.”
A Harvard librarian has spread out a number of 19th-century titles, each propped open on a cradle to keep the spine from tearing. One is “The Adventures of a Three Guinea Watch.” Scholars call books like this “it-narratives”—a genre popular among Victorian children, in which an object (here, a watch) travels through a group of people, then tells its own story. Inside this particular book, Price points out, the young owner practiced writing his name in different ways—“James Albert Squires,” “J.A. Squires”—and with more and less formal penmanship. “It was a way of practicing to be an adult,” she says.
This is one of Price’s key ideas: Although we’ve always used books for reading, we’ve also used them for other things—for practicing our penmanship or decorating our homes. And that means books can have more than one kind of content. “What you find in the margins, mostly, is not verbal evidence,” she says. Instead, it’s wax and smoke stains from candles, splatters from food, even handwritten shopping lists.
Price is most interested in the 19th century, since it was then that books became a truly mass medium. “It was a time of exponentially expanding literacy,” she says. “It was a social shift much more drastic than the one in our lifetime to computer use.” This shift also relied on new technology—not computers, of course, but steam-powered printing presses and the ability to make cheap paper out of wood pulp.
But while paper and printing were becoming far more widespread, Price stresses that this did not automatically lead to more people reading great literature—or even reading books at all. Instead, it led to things like the rise of junk mail. (“I have enjoyed few things more in life,” one Victorian admitted, “than the certainty of being out of the way of the post.”) Or it led to an explosion in the number of cheap religious tracts. At Houghton, Price flips through one tract and notes that its pages are yellowed with age, but otherwise unread. “The fact that it exists at all tells you something,” she says.
As books became more popular, they also became more ornamental. Wealthy ladies began buying elaborate Bibles to match their elaborate outfits. There were stories about gentlemen who simply sent booksellers the measurements of their shelves. Dickens put a playful twist on the whole trend by lining his shelves with dummy books and giving them punning titles like “Noah’s Arkitechture” and “Cat’s Lives,” which came in nine volumes.
Clearly, different kinds of readers reacted differently to the influx of books. And that’s another one of Price’s points: We tend to think of literature as something that ties individuals and cultures together, but as books proliferated in the Victorian era they often drove people apart. Price mentions tracts that warned servants never to read their masters’ books. Books could split even the closest bonds; in a humorous magazine cartoon called “The Waning of the Honeymoon,” a woman peers into a book while her husband fumes over her shoulder. “You were hiding behind a newspaper the way today you hide behind your iPod headphones,” Price says.
With so many new books, and so many new readers, a few Victorians began investing books themselves with symbolic power. For the first time, Price suggests, these people turned books into something special—into something you shouldn’t write in or treat like a decoration. Up to this point, reading books was rare enough that the act itself made you stand out. “People took for granted that you could use a book for all kinds of things,” Price says. But for all of these reasons, that began to change with the Victorians. “This was the moment where you start to become embarrassed about these nontextual uses,” she says, “where you start to say, ‘Other people do these things with books. But I don’t—I’m a reader.’”
English professors, of course, are supposed to be some of the best readers of all. But Price has risen to prominence by doing a different kind of research. “She has an original and creative mind,” says Jonathan Grossman, an English professor at UCLA. He singles out Price’s first book, which argued that you could understand novels better by looking not just at the works themselves, but at the way readers anthologized and abridged them. “It showed us the history of the novel from an angle we’d never seen it before,” Grossman says. The book impressed so many scholars that in 2002 UCLA began to court Price, then an assistant professor at Harvard. Harvard countered by tenuring and promoting her to full professor, at the age of just 31.
Since then, Price has continued to look for new angles. She doesn’t claim we should stop reading—and indeed still teaches her students how to do careful analysis of literature. “I still believe being able to interpret texts is the most important tool literary critics have to give the rest of the population,” she says. But Price does want her fellow English professors to think about more than mere reading: “It’s about restoring reading to a larger social context, which means knocking it off its pedestal.”
Applying that method to our current anxieties about the future of the book is Price’s next goal. Despite a career spent studying old books, she doesn’t seem very sentimental about them. She’s started doing some reading on her smartphone. “As a reader, it’s like always having a granola bar in your pocket,” she says. Nevertheless, as more people read on phones, tablets, laptops—on anything, in short, but paper—many worry the physical book itself may disappear.
Price thinks this fear is misplaced—and a legacy of how the Victorians turned the book into a sacred object. “Now that the book is facing competition from digital media,” she says, “we’re more invested than ever in taking the book as a proxy for certain values we hold dear: attention, absorption, imagination, and being analytical.” The problem with this, according to Price, is that it relies on an artificial and nostalgic sense of what the physical book has meant over time. “In the 18th century,” she notes, “the ability to concentrate on a book was actually proof you’re an idle daydreaming loafer.”
Shifts like that one are driving her next project, which will trace the historical reality of reading instead of our idealized version of it. She hopes that by digging up better examples of how people read (and how they didn’t) she’ll be able to offer better analogies for understanding the digital future. Price points out that, when the first bulky e-readers came out, people complained that you couldn’t read them in bed: “Well, for most of the book’s history you couldn’t read it in bed, either, or the curtains would catch on fire.”
One thing the digital future is already doing is providing real-time insight into how people read. Price is particularly fond of an Amazon feature that lets you see Kindle users’ most heavily highlighted passages. “Any reader can see very easily the kind of evidence I was going through hundreds and hundreds of volumes to construct,” she says. Right now, the star passages come from the “Hunger Games” trilogy and tend to be more moral or philosophical than plot-driven. “It’s not a book I’d go to for philosophical wisdom,” Price says, “but people recognize a category of general truths about life. And if what they happen to be reading is ‘The Hunger Games,’ then that’s what they’re going to highlight.”
Price also believes that, just like the Victorians, we’ll soon be investing our new forms of reading with meanings and values of their own. “I associate electronic devices with occupational reading,” she says, noting that she started reading electronically on a desktop computer. But someday we may understand our Kindles and iPads in ways that right now would seem surprising or even strange. “The connotations for using an e-reader are very much up for grabs right now,” Price says. “I don’t think they’ll be up for grabs much longer.”
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail email@example.com.