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David N. Livingstone

A Geography of Reading

Why the WTO protestors had it wrong

Books have biographies. Like people, books have lives that can be told and stories that can be recounted. James Secord's Victorian Sensation is an extraordinary example of a new genre of scholarship that might appropriately be dubbed the biblio-biography. It is the story of the writing, publishing, circulating, and reading of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, first published anonymously in 1844 but later revealed as the child of the Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers. An imposing cosmological epic conceived on a grand scale, the book created a sensation at the time.

Embraced by some, vilified by others, it at once bemused, infuriated, consoled, and revolted readers in its bold portrayal of the drama of evolution and its popular synthesis of everything from astronomy to zoology. One thought it a "priceless treasure," another dismissed it as materialist "pigology." Some found it manly; others were sure they could detect a womanly hand behind its anonymity. Some thought it daring; still others found it melancholic. And while the young Thomas Archer Hirst—who would later become a prominent mathematician—found it laid out in a "masterly" fashion, Thomas Henry Huxley abominated it and characteristically sniped that it was nothing but a "weed," a "lumber-room of second-hand scientific furniture," and "a broth of a book." Indeed, writers outdid one another in the metaphors they exploited to stage-manage the text for readers. The book's striking red binding prompted one to "attribute to it all the graces of an accomplished harlot." Its continuing anonymity drew from another the exclamation: "Unhappy foundling! Tied to every man's knocker, and taken in by nobody; thou shouldst go to Ireland!" To yet another the book was an illicit marriage between gross credulity and rank infidelity.

But all this is to anticipate. Before readers can react to a book, they have to get it into their hands. Writers, publishers, printers, binders, shippers, sellers, and readers are netted ...

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