Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics

A Twenty-First-Century Study of Readers and Bookshops in Southampton around 1900

By Simon R. Frost

Subjects: Social And Cultural History, British Studies, Literary History
Series: SUNY series in the History of Books, Publishing, and the Book Trades
Hardcover : 9781438483511, 396 pages, May 2021
Paperback : 9781438483528, 396 pages, January 2022

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Their or, Rather, Our Books

Part I: Theory, Methods, Tactics, and Politics

1. Reading and Wanting: Commodity Culture Needs Readers

2. Book Retail: A Test Bed for Sustainable Economics

3. Je Suis the Unknown Public

4. When Books Come to Town: International Aspirations, High Street-Bound

Part II: Southampton Stories

5. What's Selling in Southampton: Commodity Culture, Dock Strikes, and Gas-and-Water Socialism

6. The Daily Round

7. High Street Southampton Bookshops

8. Gilbert's: A Treetop in the Networked Forest

Part III: Factual Fictions

9. Five Visits to Gilbert's

Part IV: Theory, Methods, Tactics, and Politics, 2.0

10. Reading Entertainment and the Construction of Economic Reality

11. Events, Frames, and History: Getting What We Want from a Book

12. Whose Is the Question Économique?


Appendix: Biblioteca: Toward a Bibliography of Works Published by H.M. Gilbert and Sons


Uses a historical study of bookselling and readers as a way to question and rethink our understanding of the market for symbolic goods.


Combining historical study, theorization, and experimental fiction, this book takes commodity culture and book retail around 1900 as the prime example of a market of symbolic goods. With the port of Southampton, England, as his case study, Simon R. Frost reveals how the city's bookshops, with their combinations of libraries, haberdashery, stationery, and books, sustained and were sustained by the dreams of ordinary readers, and how together they created the values powering this market. The goods in this market were symbolic and were not "consumed" but read. Their readings were created between other readers and texts, in happy disobedience to the neoliberal laws of the free market. Today such reader-created social markets comprise much of the world's branded economies, which is why Frost calls for a new understanding of both literary and market values.

Simon R. Frost is Principal Academic in English at Bournemouth University, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Business of the Novel: Economics, Aesthetics and the Case of Middlemarch.


"…Frost's Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics invites interest from readers across a wide range of disciplinary interests from book history to media studies, and not least, of course, economics." — Media International Australia

"As both hyperlocal British book history and programmatic theory of literature and the economy, this book doesn't just do—it succeedsReading, Wanting, and Broken Economics will also be of keen interest to interdisciplinary studies of reading, bookselling, and/or the cultural economy. Highly recommended." — Publishing Research Quarterly

"Through a gripping thick description of the networks of institutions, legislation, markets, booksellers, and readers that make up the book trade in Southampton at the turn of the twentieth century, Simon Frost mounts a powerful challenge to two rather different orthodoxies: that of literary studies, with its prevailing distinctions between valued and disvalued texts and professional and lay reading practices, and that of neoclassical economics, with its reduction of socially grounded desires to individual calculations of utility maximization. This is the payoff of book history at its best: that it can come to terms with the complexities of the interlocking formation of economic and cultural value as it is played out in the rich particularity of a time and a place." — John Frow, University of Sydney

"This stimulating study of bookshops as 'insatiable' sites of openly participatory reading is an arresting departure from literary-critical perspectives, focusing instead on books as material, commodified, and contested objects of economic exchange. It is a compelling contribution to the contentious conceptualization of literature as a traded commodity, and one securely grounded in—and also provocatively reinterpreting and theoretically reconstructing—the rich historical resources of a globally-connected port city." — James Raven FBA, author of What is the History of the Book?

"Simon Frost's study prompts book history to look both backwards and forwards. Its detailed study of the book trade in Southampton around 1900 recalls the Annales School, where fine-grained investigation of a single locale serves as a microcosm of a larger reality. But in its rethinking of the relationship between economics and literature, it pushes book history forwards—taking readers' desires seriously and asking how commerce and reading might be mutually constitutive. Impressively interdisciplinary, methodologically innovative, and engaged with the most recent critical theory, Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics charts new ways to think about reading and its multiple payoffs." — Simone Murray, Monash University

"Reading, Wanting, and Broken Economics provides a robust argument for fuller political economies of reading. In this impressive work, Simon Frost skillfully locates his case study within a richly nuanced historical, political, networked cultural, and economic landscape, which results in an intellectual—and, often entertaining—illustration of how we can study twenty-first-century readers within a commodity culture. This work is an exemplary illustration of the necessity to study historical and contemporary readers through an interdisciplinary lens. Our goal should be to do it as well as Frost does." — DeNel Rehberg Sedo, Mount Saint Vincent University