The book as fearful thing

Penelope Fielding, Deidre Lynch

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Some books seem to have the power to possess their readers. This chapter traces the figure of this fearfully empowered book in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts, when such books challenged more familiar celebrations of literacy and of the press’s power to disseminate enlightenment. Using a concept of “magic materiality,” taking our cue from legends conflating the printer Johann Faust with the sorcerer Dr Faustus, we explore the association, in Scottish gothic novels especially, of printed books with fearsome potency and political danger. In Walter Scott’s The Monastery, we show, a “black book” with an eerie life of its own represents both a Protestant Bible and a book of spells. Finally, we consider a historical episode shaped by this literary phenomenon, demonstrating how over the course of the 1793 sedition trials in Edinburgh, copies of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man came to resemble the magic books of the era’s supernatural fiction.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Unfinished Book
EditorsAlexandra Gillespie, Deidre Lynch
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191904172
ISBN (Print)9780198830801
Publication statusPublished - 7 Dec 2020

Publication series

NameOxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature
PublisherOxford University Press


  • print
  • magic
  • materiality
  • Bible
  • Babadook
  • sedition
  • gothic
  • Walter Scott
  • Thomas Paine
  • Thomas Muir


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