"When Novels Were Books" w/ Jordan Alexander Stein

Please Join Us for a Reading & Conversation ft


Author of When Novels Were Books

ft special guest, LARA COHEN

About When Novels Were Books

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 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: The Journal of Early American Life, and Saveur.

Lara Langer Cohen teaches courses at Swarthmore on early American literature, Black print cultures, literary theory, Marxism, and old media. She is the author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and co-editor, with Jordan Alexander Stein, of Early African American Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). Recent publications include essays on music in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, amateur journalism, mourning poetry, mid-nineteenth-century city mysteries, and summer jams. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Currently she is working on a study of nineteenth-century undergrounds tentatively titled Before Subculture.


Event date: 
Thursday, February 6, 2020 - 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Event address: