Holding Gulliver’s Travels

Today, Gulliver’s Travels is a widely known work of prose fiction, frequently adapted into film, and often recognisable through images of tiny people crawling over a giant. What would it have been like to encounter it the eighteenth century? It was first published in 1726. If you had got hold of a copy (it is said to have sold out within a week), you would have found that it was called ‘Travels into several Remote Nations of the World’ – not Gulliver’s Travels. It would not have been authored by Jonathan Swift. Instead, the title page would have told you that it was by ‘Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships’. It would not have been a glossy paperback or represented as a shiny square on your ebook reader. You might not even have heard of it before. Instead, in your hands would have been two, small, neatly bound leather volumes. Just picking up those volumes would have meant that it was possible for you to believe, as the preface to the book explained, that the manuscript had been left with Richard Sympson, a relative of Gulliver, who had edited out some of the boring bits before passing it to the printer. That is not to say that you would have been fooled into thinking that what you were holding was a factual account of someone’s travels – although you might well have been. Rather, you would have been given the option to believe in it. If you chose, you could hold the book in your hands like you might have held a stage prop in an extended play. In other words, just holding (rather than reading) Gulliver’s Travels could have taken you to another world.

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