Clearing the Field: New Perspectives on Book History
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 125-131

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Book Review

Clearing the Field:
New Perspectives on Book History

David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, eds. The Book History Reader(London and New York: Routledge, 2002). Pp. x + 390. $27.95.
Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine, eds. Books and the Sciences in History(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xiv + 438. $30.00.
Donald R. Kelley, ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997). Pp. viii + 344. $75.00.
Isabel Rivers, ed. Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays (London and New York: Leicester University Press, 2001). Pp. x + 294. $107.95

In 1606 Johannes Kepler traced "the proliferation of printed books to the effects of planetary conjunctions on the human faculty which makes men sociable by nature"— a cosmological coincidence that generated important breakthroughs in fields as diverse as theology, jurisprudence, and medicine (Frasca-Spada 2). Not all scholars have explained the history of printed books and their attendant benefits in such celestial terms, but book history has persisted as a popular subject of scholarly attention nonetheless. Two centuries after Kepler's pronouncement, an 1803 obituary in the Monthly Magazine hailed Samuel Paterson as a pioneer in the new scholarly "science" of "bibliography and literary history . . . the happy result of those persevering inquiries into the intellectual and [End Page 125] active powers of man, through which we have been able to refer to their common stock, and to trace back to their root the manifold, diverging, and apparently unconnected branches of the tree of knowledge" (15: 43). In 1820 the Retrospective Review explained this development in terms of a more negative account of sheer excess. It warned that the grandeur of existing libraries "must strike the heart of the student that enters them with despair, should he aim at attaining universal knowledge through the medium of books." Ironically, this superabundance made the task of situating books within some meaningful perspective increasingly urgent and impossible. "The knowledge of their external qualities, and the adventitious circumstances attending their formation or history, has become a science—professors devote their lives to it, with an enthusiasm not unworthy of a higher calling—they have earned the name of bibliomaniacs (1: vii-viii).

Interest in this particular science may have been muffled by the ahistorical tendencies of the New Criticism, but in more recent years bibliomania has returned with a vengeance. In a 1982 essay that is included as the first entry in Routledge's Book History Reader, Robert Darnton warned that an interest in books had provoked what amounted to academic insurrection. Frustrated with the constraints imposed by existing disciplinary boundaries, a group of scholars had "decided to constitute a field of their own and to invite in historians, literary scholars, sociologists, librarians, and anyone else who wanted to understand the book as a force in history." Soon "the history of books began to acquire its journals, research centers, conferences, and lecture circuits" (108). Nor was it simply a matter of redrawing the disciplinary map. Darnton insisted that on a more fundamental level, rejecting "the great-man, great-book view of literary history" as a "mystification" would "open up the possibility of rereading literary history. And if studied in connection with the system for producing and diffusing the printed word, [it] could force us to rethink our notion of literature itself" (153).

Bibliography remains a central element of this enterprise, but as D. F. McKenzie argues in the second excerpt of the Book History Reader, it does so in a form that bears little resemblance to the intellectual purity suggested by Sir Walter Greg's assertion that "what the bibliographer is concerned with is a piece of paper or parchment covered with certain written or printed signs. With these signs he is concerned merely as arbitrary marks; their meaning is no business of his" (27). Greg's focus on the materiality of books themselves has been doubled by an interest in the discursive and institutional formations within which books gain...