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The Thingness of Books

Books are (physical) things as well as (intangible) texts.  From a review of the new How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, by Leah Price:

[S]he 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.

The book is published by Princeton University Press.

1 thought on “The Thingness of Books”

  1. I have skills in graphic production ranging from William Cason’s press in the basement of sterling men library to the present technologies. And I am a sculptor. Il y a bien des choses hors-texte, m. Derrida. J’insiste a vous déconstruire.

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