Madeleine Robins

July 30, 2018

A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot

Filed under: Craft,History,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 11:06 AM
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I run a small museum. It’s a museum on the history of the book, and of bookbinding, and one of the things we talk about when talking about the book as object, is about its meaning as an object.

Only a couple of centuries ago, most people in Europe could go through their entire lives without seeing a book up close. Books were irrelevant to their lives. More than that, books were insanely expensive; they were investments, luxuries. Granted, after Gutenberg comes along with the press, the price of books dropped roughly 80%–which means they went from astronomically expensive to merely prohibitively expensive. As long as books were individually hand-bound, ownership was out of the reach of most people (it’s why subscription libraries flourished in England–when a 3 volume set of Sense and Sensibility cost the equivalent of $100, it was far cheaper to pay a subscription fee and have access to all the latest poetry, essays, and fiction).

After the British burned down the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson famously sold them his library as a “starter” to rebuild on. And turned around and used the money to buy himself more books, because… well, books. Books were wealth of a sort; you could sell them to raise money (or use them as collateral for loans). Having a library–even a collection of a few books–marked you as a person of property, even if you didn’t own your house or your land.

As with so much else, the Industrial Revolution changed that. Once books became affordable to the middle class, the meaning of book ownership changed.

Beyond mere investment, ownership of a book could signal a wealth of things:

  • I’m literate
  • I have leisure to read
  • I have the money to buy a book or books
  • I have the good taste to buy work by this author
  • I have the money to buy a handsomely-bound work
  • I value knowledge
  • I (as an immigrant) have imbibed the values of my new society
  • I (as an immigrant) have learned the language of my new home
  • I (as an immigrant) am trying to figure out the customs of my new home

That’s a lot of weight to put on a stack of paper between book-board covers. And yet, that set of Dickens, or Trollope, or the Brontës, could bear the weight. Especially if they were nicely bound. Even after the industrial revolution, the wealthy could still buy hand-bound, hand-covered, hand-tooled books; but publishers cannily realized that their audience wanted books that looked high-end, even if they were less expensive. The book-cover above would have been made separate from the binding of the book, and decorated using gold foil and a heated embossing press. It would still have been an expensive volume, but it was within the means of a middle class household.

What if you didn’t have the money for a beautifully bound book? There were editions for the budget conscious, less decorated, perhaps on flimsier paper. I found an ad for a complete set of Dickens for $0.48. I am reasonably certain those books, paper covered, were not the volumes you displayed on your mantel to virtue signal. And below those cheaply bound books were dime novels, stapled and bound in paper, and magazines, and tracts, and pamphlets. Arguably, these cheaper books were more about access: to story, to culture, to language, to information. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches narrative was promulgated through such books: hard work and virtue could change your fortune!

And if your fortune changed, perhaps you, too, could have a set of Dickens on the mantel to signify that you had arrived. And perhaps even to read.

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