10/05/2012 09:41 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Alternative Uses for Books

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.

Things to do with Books