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When Novels Were Books

When Novels Were Books

Jordan Alexander Stein

ISBN 9780674987043

Publication date: 01/07/2020

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A literary scholar explains how eighteenth-century novels were manufactured, sold, bought, owned, collected, and read alongside Protestant religious texts. As the novel developed into a mature genre, it had to distinguish itself from these similar-looking books and become what we now call “literature.”

Literary scholars have explained the rise of the Anglophone novel using a range of tools, from Ian Watt’s theories to James Watt’s inventions. Contrary to established narratives, When Novels Were Books reveals that the genre beloved of so many readers today was not born secular, national, middle-class, or female.

For the first three centuries of their history, novels came into readers’ hands primarily as printed sheets ordered into a codex bound along one edge between boards or paper wrappers. Consequently, they shared some formal features of other codices, such as almanacs and Protestant religious books produced by the same printers. Novels are often mistakenly credited for developing a formal feature (“character”) that was in fact incubated in religious books.

The novel did not emerge all at once: it had to differentiate itself from the goods with which it was in competition. Though it was written for sequential reading, the early novel’s main technology for dissemination was the codex, a platform designed for random access. This peculiar circumstance led to the genre’s insistence on continuous, cover-to-cover reading even as the “media platform” it used encouraged readers to dip in and out at will and read discontinuously. Jordan Alexander Stein traces this tangled history, showing how the physical format of the book shaped the stories that were fit to print.

Praise

  • Granting publishers equal billing with authors and paying as much attention to buying habits as to reading practices, [Stein] coordinates the history of the novel with ‘the development of the book as a media platform.’…While Watt celebrated a genre bursting free from the stale conventions of epic and romance, Stein casts the novel itself as the fixed point against which modern devotional genres began to emerge.

    —Leah Price, New York Review of Books

Author

  • Jordan Alexander Stein is a literary scholar who writes about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British and American novels and poetry. He is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fordham University. His essays have appeared in a dozen academic journals and in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Common-Place, and Saveur.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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