“the message is also the medium”: Leah Price and Non-Textual Uses of Books

I found Leah Price’s introduction and first chapter from How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain to be tremendously generative as a way of imagining the significance and uses of books aside from reading. It escapes my thinking to consider that many handlers of books, to use Price’s term, often never read the text but leveraged the book’s other material features, such as its size, its heft, its binding, its pages, etc., for ends that ran the gamut from standing in as trophies adorning social spaces to functioning as a cushion that a Bodleian librarian sat on for decades. Such nontextual uses of books demonstrate how the book’s material form encode “understandings of, and feelings toward, the uses of printed matter” in a variety of different ways (Price 5).

The various editions of my pet book, Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack, with their different bindings, illustrations, typography, formats, prices, title-pages, printers, audiences, and other paratextual elements emphasize Price’s point that “The book’s material properties trump its textual content when its value (whether for use or for resale) lies in attributes orthogonal to its legibility” (8). The two different first editions of Colonel Jack, discussed in my initial blog post for this course, showcase how a book’s materiality might have a greater effect on its price than its narrative contents. The similarities in the font and layout of title page of both these first-editions evidences that they were clearly printed around the same time by the same printer. However, they differ in that the copy with the more elaborate binding and tooling does not indicate a price tag, whereas the simpler copy lists a price of six shillings. In this case, the narrative contents of both first editions are identical, however, their material differences evidence contrasting histories of handling, use, and ownership. The fact that we cannot even tell which copy is the “true” first edition of Colonel Jack, only complicates modern day understandings of this text and its initial readers. Was Colonel Jack initially branded as a book for the sophisticated reader who values elaborate binding and tooling, or was it aimed at a more middle-market crowd? Does the elaborate copy at the BPL simply the reflect the taste of a bibliophile who owned this copy prior to it ending up at the BPL?

This course thus far has taught me how the material conditions of books point towards histories of readership, genre, circulation, and print technology. Price has further enriched my understanding of why studying book history is important by stressing that “the history of books is centrally about ourselves. It asks not only how past readers have made meaning (and therefore, by extension, how others have read differently from us); but also, closer to home, where the conditions of possibility for our own reading came from” (37). By connecting the history of books to the history of reading, Price shows how one might trace a genealogy of reading that relies on the materiality of books. This is what I have found to be ultimately most valuable in Price’s perspective — her insistence that “the message is also the medium” provides a generative way of relating literary criticism to bibliographic criticism (Price 37).




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