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Leah Price


Alternative Uses for Books

Posted: 10/05/2012 9:38 am

Every author knows, sadly, that a book spends only a fraction of its lifecycle in the hands of readers - and that's if it's lucky. In How to Do Things with Books, I ask what good books are when they're gathering dust on the shelf. What can - and should -- you do with a book during those many hours in which you're not reading it? Is it fair game to hide behind the newspaper, use an encyclopedia as a doorstop, turn a newspaper into fish wrapping, match the binding of your bible to your dress, fill a study wall with hollowed-out books, decorate a living-room table with intact ones that you have no intention of opening?

The Victorians were the first people to wrestle with these questions on a massive scale, because they were the first society in the world to benefit from widespread literacy and cheap paper. After the abolition of various taxes on printed matter were lifted, and after new technologies made the raw materials of books easier to mass-produce, middle-class male readers began to worry about how to distinguish themselves from their social inferiors, who now had access to books as well. How could you get your wife or your servant to dust your leatherbound volumes without peeking into their pages? How could you prove that your books had been lovingly selected, not carted in by the yard to harmonize with your sofa?

The same volume could serve one purpose for a student who scribbled "nonsense!" in the margin, another to an interior decorator who placed it on a client's shelf or coffee table without bothering to cut its pages -- without even mentioning the housemaid who dusted it, the tradesman who wrapped butter and cheese in its pages, or the young lady who used them for curling papers. By mining letters, diaries, and marginal notes to piece together the very different ways these various players read and handled and valued books, I shed unexpected light on the origins of our own attitudes toward print at a time when it's being threatened once more by competing media.

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  • Books take you to new heights

    Books are good for many things. One of them is reading – but not the only one. A dictionary can prop open a door or weigh down flyaway papers. Parading around the room with a book on your head was the traditional finishing-school antidote to the bad posture created by…hunching over a book. Even before they learn to read, your toddlers can perch happily on top of a book – though now that phone companies have discontinued the Yellow Pages, makeshift highchairs are in short supply. Enter the Boost, a book-shaped piece of foam for the smartphone generation.

  • Books are full of surprises

    Until 1910, witnesses in English law courts were required to kiss a Bible. Until half a century earlier, when toilet paper was invented, it was equally common to wipe your ass on a page torn from a book or magazine – though usually, of course, a less sacred one. You can press flowers between the pages of a dictionary; you can turn a paperback into a hiding-place for money, or (if you’re Kate Spade) into a handbag.

  • Lost in a book

    But books don’t need to go unread to make themselves useful. You can commune with a dead author to avoid interacting with the human beings living around you: \the novel that immerses you in Anna Karenina’s or Emma Bovary’s marital dilemmas can shield you from your own husband and kids. One fan wrote Oprah that "My children now are trained that when they see Mom with a book, they just don't bother me." If you were a Victorian servant, books could absorb you so thoroughly that you risked burning the house down, like this cook reading on the job. Before the invention of gaslight, this was also a reason not to read in bed.

  • Time theft

    In this illustration from <em>The Story of a Pocket Bible</em>, a maid is engaging in what Walmart would later dub “time theft.” The book she’s reaching down from the shelf is a Bible, and you’d think the religious magazine that serialized this story would have approved. But no: when she gets to the passage that reads “Servants, obey in all things your masters...” she blushes and drops the book. It’s not enough to read the right books: you also need to read them at the right time. You weren’t supposed to read your master’s copy, let alone to drop your duster while reading it on the job.

  • One Thing at a Time

    Today, we associate print with earnest, attentive, single-minded concentration: books are read from start to finish, while digital media encourage us to skip around and become distracted. In the nineteenth century, though, books themselves were blamed for encouraging escapist idling. The maidservant in this illustration is also reading a goody-goody book – in her case, not the Bible but a collection of missionary biographies. Instead of her choice of reading material, though, the caption chides her for multitasking: “Jane has left off her business of sweeping and dusting the room, and is looking at the books which were placed on the table. Perhaps Jane has never heard the rhyme: ‘One thing at a time, and that done well Is a very good rule as many may tell’.

  • Writing the dust

    Although at a time when less than half the population was literate, servants who could read and write commanded a higher wage, Victorian ladies and gentlemen still worried about servants who were too good at reading. They could peek into their masters’ books (as in the previous slides), ferreting out secrets that could be used to blackmail the correspondents, wasting time when they should have been working, or even just smudging the pages with wet or soapy fingers. This 1895 cartoon, though, makes clear that uneducated servants could be just as impertinent.

  • Multitasking mom

    Today, we often blame our smartphones for distracting us. The psychologist Sherry Turkle’s recent book <em>Alone Together</em> argues that "when someone holds the phone, it can be hard to know if you have that person's attention. A parent, partner, or child glances down and is lost." In a less scholarly vein, the blog Parents on Phones assembles snapshots of parents caught in the act of texting at the park, taking a hand off of a stroller or a swing to press “send” or shushing their kids while listening raptly to someone at the other end of the line. These photos are, of course, themselves generated by cellphone-wielding parents: fight fire with fire.

  • Parents on Phones: the Prequel

    Before there were smartphones, there were books. And before driving under the influence of texting, there was walking under the influence of reading. Victorians like this cartoonist for the magazine Punch already knew that books can be an excellent kid-ignoring tool – if and only if you have the latest multi-tasking technology. In this illustration, that technology is not some digital gadget but an oversized keyring (“chatelaine”), rigged up to leave the mother’s hands free to turn the pages.

  • Reading and hiding

    If parents could hide from their kids behind a book, husbands could also unfurl a newspaper to screen out their wives, and wives hide behind the pages of a novel when they didn't want to talk to their husbands. His and hers, broadsheet and book: these couples recreated at home the discovery be made by commuters on the world's first railway lines that if you look down at a book you don't need to make eye contact with the passenger across from you.

  • Dirty Books

    After the British government set aside funding for public libraries in 1850, reading rooms became one of the first places where citizens could rub shoulders with richer and poorer neighbors. Some readers, though, were unsettled by the thought that the pages they were handling been thumbed by grimier hands. Earlier, censors had tried to deny the poor access to “poisonous” or “unhealthy” books; now, the fear was that respectable ladies could be imbibing germs every time they licked their finger to turn the page. Enter the “book disinfecting apparatus,” which bathed volumes in carbolic or sulphuric acid.