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A Highlander and His Books
How to do things with books in Victorian Britain By Leah Price

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot.

Harvard Professor Leah Price

I was introduced to the writings of Leah Price by Jessica Pellien, Assistant Director of Publicity for Princeton University Press, and soon I was into a tremendous volume about books and authors and the things they wrote. Books have always fascinated me and this one in particular has me still talking about it. Basically it is a brief history of books during a certain era in our history. I learned right away that How to do Things with Books is not one for everyone. Actually, it is a great book for scholars of the Victorian era since Ms. Price writes of incidents in literature that make one assume you know what she is referring to. It is an excellent book for those who teach in that special era of a Queen whose influence was as vast as her worldwide empire. Leah Price writes remarkably well, and it only takes a few pages for one to realize she is not a novice trying to write her first bestseller. She has “been there and done that”!

You will find this to be true in this publication on books concerning Victorian Britain and will marvel at how Price makes this one so interesting to read. Naturally, there is reference to the beloved coffee-table books of years gone by.  Some exceptional stories accompany the pages of her book as she breathes life into them with their telling. It is the “hidden lives” of these books that will tweak your interest. I found it amusing that the author reveals to us that wives hid behind books in the presence of husbands and husbands did the same with the daily newspaper. What a great way to start the day! Her humor throughout the book is rampant and enjoyable.

Newspapers were used as fish wrappers in the Victorian days just as our fishmonger did over 60 years ago in my small South Carolina hometown when “fresh fish” arrived on Thursday, having been trucked into town for the weekend. I smiled at the thought of books being used as doorstops as they were in Victorian Britain. I also found of special interest the account of books being made from pulp turned into paper and no longer made from rags or cloth. Yes, you heard right…rags and cloth. Professor Price has hunted down many ways books were used that you and I could never imagine.

Be wise for once in your life and pay attention to the last 87 pages of the book. You will make a mistake if you put it down when you finish the last chapter. If you do, you will commit a boo-boo like the vast majority of movie goers who spring from their seats when The End appears on the screen or the credits begin to roll. They bolt for the door as if someone shouted “Fire!” The Notes for the chapters are full of “highlight” material, the kind you will be tempted to use in speeches. The Works Cited are so numerous that they border on putting Shakespeare and Company out of business.  And yes, the Index is a library within itself! It is unusual to end a book review talking about notes, book references and the index, but I do because these last pages are that important.  They speak to me in an age where some authors stutter and stammer and rush through their resources as if they want you to think they wrote their books without standing on the shoulders of others – past and present.  Leah Price did her homework and produced a most unusual book, one not to be taken lightly! She has all the tools of a great writer and How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain proves it!  (FRS: 7.12.12)  

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