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Source: Review copy from Johns Hopkins University Press

Book Summary: In the nineteenth century, inexpensive editions of Jane Austen’s novels targeted to Britain’s working classes were sold at railway stations, traded for soap wrappers, and awarded as school prizes. At just pennies a copy, these reprints were some of the earliest mass-market paperbacks. Few of these hard-lived bargain books survive, yet they were instrumental in bringing Austen’s work and reputation before the general public. Packed with nearly 100 full-color photographs of dazzling, sometimes gaudy, sometimes tasteless covers, The Lost Books of Jane Austen is a unique history of these rare and forgotten Austen volumes. Informed by the author’s years of unconventional book hunting, this book will surprise even the most ardent Janeite with glimpses of scruffy survivors that challenge the prevailing story of Austen’s steady and genteel rise.

My thoughts: The Lost Books of Jane Austen is a fantastic book about Jane Austen’s rise to popularity, but it’s also a look at the evolution of the publishing industry and how owning books became possible for the lower classes during the nineteenth century and beyond. I thought it was interesting how Janine Barchas, an academic, became interested in mass-market books and their covers and what they convey to the reader when 11- and 12-year old students at her daughter’s all-girl’s school thought Mr. Darcy was a vampire because the inexpensive edition of Pride and Prejudice they were given resembled the cover of the books in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. It is fascinating to consider the impact of covers on how a reader perceives books (especially when there have been so many different versions of the same books, as in Austen’s case), the differences between the prized editions of the classics in academic libraries and the books the average reader owns, and how, as Barchas writes in the preface, “cheap books make authors canonical.”

Barchas looks at how these cheap mass-market books were created and at who owned these volumes. There are pictures throughout the book to show the various editions she came across and what makes them unique, and there are rich descriptions of these books and why they are just as important as the first editions sought by collectors and academic libraries. Barchas packs a lot of information into this book, but makes the history accessible and captivating. And the book itself is beautiful, with numerous photographs that bring these lost books to life. I knew little about the publishing industry and how it evolved during and after Austen’s time, and as a lover of books (not just the stories but the books themselves) I was practically salivating at the pictures of books I’d love to have in my own collection. It got me thinking about the numerous versions of Austen’s novels that I own, where they came from, and what stories the covers tell about the contents of the books.

If you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift for the Janeite in your life (or just treat yourself!), The Lost Books of Jane Austen would be a delightful addition to their shelves.

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