Recent studies in literary and cultural history have been marked by a newed interest in the social world and the things that inhabit it. I use e word 'inhabit' advisedly to reflect the concurrent interest in the social as a process constituted out of relations not just between humans but also between things. In the work of theorists such as Bruno Latour, things are deemed to have potential agency in relation to human participants in the construction of any social world. As Arjun Appadurai put it, while 'human actors may encode things with significance . .. things in motion illuminate their human and social context' (3). Even more recently, this critical formation has started to influence book history, strengthening its tendency to turn literary study away from the meeting of minds on the page towards the manipulation of things and even the social life of print (Price). This might involve thinking about ways in which books arrange humans around them in certain kinds of ways, as readers and otherwise, exerting at least a directive force on cultural forms.
The Literary and Philosophical Societies that began to appear in Britain around 1780 offer a case in point. These associations provided a model of knowledge committed to the idea of improvement in the context of the new industrial towns of the north of England, most obviously with the foundation of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society of 1781 and then the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1793. Although they are usually written about in the context of provincial science, both these societies identified themselves, at least initially, with a more general 'progress that has been made in Physics and the Belles Lettres' (Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, v).