It is not easy to write a new theory of the rise of the novel. Almost every aspect of eighteenth-century society, it can seem, has been scrutinized for its connection to the genre of Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen. Individualism and Protestantism, nationalism and imperialism, capitalism and sexual politics, at one time or another have all been proposed as the novel's basic catalyst. Although today a general ecumenicalism prevails, scholars still occasionally add another factor to the list, arguing for the impact of one neglected variable or another. In his ambitious and wide-ranging new study, Jordan Alexander Stein enters this crowded field. More than that, he seeks to reconfigure it: When Novels Were Books is at once contribution to the historiography of the rise of the novel and a challenge to the enterprise as a whole.

The argument, which is set forth with admirable clarity, has two parts. First, Stein...

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