In the Stacks with Jordan Alexander Stein

February 20th, 2020

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.

Jordan Alexander Stein will discuss When Novels Were Books at the Co-op on February 24th at 6pm. He will be joined in conversation by Sianne Ngai. Find details and RSVP here. And browse Stein's Bibliography, Critical, and Off-Topic reads below. 

Critical Reads:

Shakespeare Verbatim by Margreta deGrazia - An astonishing account of the ways that textual editing and the publication of books makes the reputation of authors, rather than the other way around.

Dickinson's Misery by Virginia Jackson - This book taught me to think about the interactions between readers and material texts in the making of genres––brilliant and mischievous in equal turns.

Publics and Counterpublics by Michael Warner - One of the most searching and elegant accounts of how texts circulate and what circulation makes possible in the world.


American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting by Meredith McGill - An eye-opening study that demonstrates what literary studies can offer book history and vice versa. 

Always Already New by Lisa Gitelman - An exciting and indispensable account of what media is and what the challenges are for those of us who work in media history.

The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel by Leah Price - Essential reading for understanding the ways that the material form of the book bears on the history of genre.

Off topic:

Dust by Carolyn Stedman - A fantastic, playful, expansive cultural history of archives and the people who work in them.

New World Drama by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon - One of the best, most creative investigations of the ways that archives can yield a diverse and revisionist history of media.

Black Print Unbound by Eric Gardner - A painstaking and brilliant study of black readership and the ways that texts can unexpectedly preserve the histories of communities.

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.

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