Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Books, Part I

In the 19th century, when the only definition of “Amazon” was a mythological female warrior, books and reading were something of a paradox.

Remember, there was no TV, no game systems, no DVDs, no internet. The only forms of self-entertainment you could do when sitting quietly in a chair were needlework or reading (or drizzling!) Yet the actual number of books available to read was small: according to figures I’ve read, in 1830 there were only about 1100 new titles published in England, in editions of about 750-1200 copies. And their cost was in inverse proportion to their availability: by the middle of that decade the average three-volume book cost thirty one shillings sixpence…compare that to the average weekly wage of a laboring man, which was between six and twenty shillings. For the earlier decades of the century, books truly were a luxury item.

So what did anyone who wasn't extremely wealthy do for reading material?

Easy. They joined a reading society or subscribed to a circulating library. For a yearly fee, a subscriber could borrow books from these private libraries, which ranged from small side-line businesses run by shopkeepers in small villages to quite large establishments in larger towns. Jane Austen was an avid circulating library subscriber and had the pleasure of seeing her own (anonymously published) books available there: her niece’s comment on a new book at their local library entitled “Sense and Sensibility, by a Lady” was “It must be nonsense with a title like that.” Aunt Jane was vastly amused.

Books also differed slightly in form from what we know today. Walter Scott made the publication of novels in three volumes popular--one story, divided up into three books. Books were also commonly purchased without a binding: you got the title page and text, and then took them to a bookbinder to be bound in the leather cover of your choice, with or without gilt lettering and embossing. Once you finally sat down to read your book, you had to be armed with a knife. The pages of books were printed two per side on a long piece of paper, and the pages then bound--so you had to slit the pages apart with a paper knife, which is why the edges of the pages of old books are always slightly jagged and uneven. (Look closely at our ladies in the print at left--see the tongue-depressor-like thing in the hand of Pink Dress?) Even today you can run across antique books with uncut pages.

Next week: Fordyce’s Sermons, Mad Monks, and Silver Fork Novels


Gabrielle said...

Hi, Marissa--

I couldn't find your email address so I'm catching up with you here! I learned about your book through the classof2k8.com website, and I'm very excited about reading it. I run a blog/e-zine for teen writers, and regularly feature author interviews (with special emphasis on YA.) Check us out at innovativeteen.blogspot.com, and if you'd be interested in doing an e-interview, please let me know.


innovativeteen AT gmail DOT com

Gillian Layne said...

Excellent blog, as usual!

I can't wait to hear about silver fork novels. I hear that term around but am not clear on what it means.