Paradigm, No. 12 (December, 1993)


The deep background of book history

Jennie Brookman



This is a slightly edited reproduction of Jennie Brookman's article in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 4th June, 1993. We thank the THES for its generous attitude to reproduction fees and remind members of the Colloquium that THES is available by subscription: Telephone: 0622721555. (Ed]


Does the knowledge that W. B. Yeats used to deface his own books in the British Library expand our understanding of his work? Many historians would argue that it does. The theory goes that historical literature can only be understood if it is seen in the context of the circumstances in which it was produced by the author and how it was received by contemporary readers. This theory has contributed to the development of a new community of academics devoted to the history of the book.

In June historians from the United Kingdom and North America gathered at the City University of New York for the inaugural conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP). The wide variety of papers submitted, from Graeco-Roman diplomatic correspondence to the marketing of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, was testimony to the wide range of the subject.

Book history is defined as the historical sociology of literature &emdash; the creation, diffusion and reception of the written word. It encompasses the social and economic history of the book trade, copyright, and censorship; the publishing histories of texts, authors, editors and literary agents; the spread of literacy, canon formation and the politics of literary criticism; and literacy and reading practices. Traditionally in the hands of bibliographers and social and economic historians, book history also attracts interest from literature, sociology, art, religion, economics and communications.

In November, a conference of British academics attempted to define the core subjects of study underlying book history. They wanted to agree a curriculum for a proposal to establish the first MA in the History of the Book in Britain, at London University. Robin Alston, director of the School of Library and Archive Studies at University College London, said it is hoped that the course will draw on the expertise of scholars in all colleges. Interest in the subject is developing in Oxford, Reading, Stirling and the Open University, but London would be the natural choice for MA students because of its vast resources in the University and British Library. "There are four million books within a half mile radius of where I am sitting. Not even Oxford has access to such a wide range", said Professor Alston.

The development of book history in the next 25 years will be given focus by the planned seven-volume History of the Book in Britain commissioned by Cambridge University Press. The idea was proposed in 1985 by Don McKenzie, professor of bibliography at Oxford University, and was brought to fruition with the establishment of four postdoctoral Leverhulme fellowships awarded to Leeds, London, the Open and Oxford universities. The first volume, The Early Manuscript Book edited by Michael Lapidge, Reader in Latin Literature at the University of Cambridge, will be published next year. The final volume, 1914 to the Present Day will examine the "electronic revolution" which is now transforming and possibly eclipsing the printed book. "Rather than being the retrospective of a mature subject, it will define it as it goes along. It will set the agenda for the next century", said Simon Eliot, co-editor of volume five The 19th Century and expert in nineteenth-century publishing.

The project follows in the tracks of Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's book L'Apparition du Livre (1959) which is generally credited as marking the beginning of the modern tradition of book scholarship.

The American Antiquarian Society is also currently producing a multi-volume collaborative history of the book in American culture with an editorial board headed by David D. Hail, of Harvard Divinity School. Germany is working on similar lines although progress has been stalled by unification.

But British book scholarship will develop differently to the more theoretical, sweeping approach which characterises the French. "The French have always been interested in the book as object, in the aesthetics of it", says Professor Alston. "In Britain we have a longer tradition of bibliography which has brought us to the position of being the only country, other than the US, where we have the output of the printing presses up to 1800."

British scholars are also benefiting from access to meticulous archives kept by publishers. Reading University in the 1980s started to acquire archives which now include Chatto and Windus, Longman, Macmillan and De La Rue, which are enabling historians to use quantitative methods to build accurate pictures of previously obscure questions: What was the average print run of a Victorian best-seller and What were marketing strategies? This explosion of research into book history is likely to fill in wide gaps in our knowledge of literacy. The existence of books for the sub-literary market, from the 16th century until the 1870 Education Act prescribed mass literacy skills, raises many unanswered questions about literacy at that time. We also do not have the evidence to tell when collective reading stopped and when it became something individuals did privately.

Little systematic work has been done on the history of book design. John Feather notes in his article The Printed Book that Ben Jonson directed the physical appearance of his books, deliberately inviting comparison with classical texts. The result was a literary and cultural statement of Jonson's own conception of the literary importance of vernacular drama.

Studies of the way authors and readers annotated books, either arguing with the text or correcting or up-dating information could also provide new insights into the contemporary influence of printed works. So far little work has been done to find and collate such information. The new interest is also resulting in attempts to preserve evidence of printing and publishing methods which rapid technological developments are sweeping away. The planned British Library Centre for the Book in the new building at Kings Cross will be a museum for the book, with examples of printing presses and other methods of production. Historians believe the history of the book will not just illuminate publishing and reading history but also benefit literary criticism and cultural studies.


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