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Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book
Michael F. Suarez, S.J. *

Book history is still a relatively new form of interdisciplinary inquiry that has yet to develop historiographical understandings adequate to the complexities of the questions it typically seeks to answer. 1 The truth of this troubling and troublesome assessment is especially evident, I believe, in the highly ambitious national histories of the book currently in progress. As a co-editor, with Michael Turner, of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 5, 1695-1830 (hereafter, CHBB5), I have been considering for several years now the theoretical and practical implications of current book-historical knowledge about the hand-press period in Britain. I have also been thinking about how the collective understandings of our intellectual enterprise as book historians—that is, the historiographies of book history— affect the ways in which scholars proceed in their investigations. Drawing on the experience of editing CHBB5 (and, to a lesser degree, of working as co-general editor, with Henry Woudhuysen, on The Oxford Companion to the Book, now in progress), I offer some observations on ten salient and various book-historical topics. Although some of the examples come from a particular book-history project, I attempt to raise more general concerns of wider applicability in the hope that presenting this salmagundi of problems and possibilities will stimulate further reflection and discussion among—and indeed between—bibliographers and book historians.

The Interdisciplinary Nature of Book History

Writing in 1977, the distinguished Blake scholar Morris Eaves sought to combat the "parochialism" that characterized the study of publishing history [End Page 141] by promoting a "comprehensive view that can see a fact in its context, even when that context violates the boundaries of specialized areas of knowledge." 2 The difficulties attendant upon such interdisciplinarity notwithstanding, Eaves advocated a Janus-like program of research, affirming "that historians of publishing have a right and a duty to set their sights very high, working in decades to come towards a comprehensive history that looks both inwards and outwards." We must direct our scholarly attentions "inwards towards a more precise account of the everyday facts of buyers, sellers, and products" so that our knowledge of book history is adequately grounded in close investigation of the historical record. Yet, we also bear a concomitant obligation to marshal our intellectual energies "outwards towards a more comprehensive account of publishing in its evolution as part of a large history that includes all the aspects of culture that affect and are affected by publishing" (77).

Though highly ambitious, this second aspect of Eaves' twin remit is by no means eccentric, and has long been considered a basic tenet of book-historical inquiry. When some of the most consequential scholars pursuing such studies gathered in June 1980 to produce a "Statement on the History of the Book," their manifesto acknowledged the difficulty and the centrality of addressing the impact that books have made on society—and the influence that society has had on the making of books. "The history of the book is fundamental to the historical study of society," they declare, "but we are far from understanding the factors that have shaped the writing and the dissemination of books." Emphasizing the dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the book and culture, they insist "These factors have changed over time and have varied from one cultural area to another; hence the impact of the book has also been ever-varied and changing." 3

The exigencies of book-historical research accordingly appear to require a range of specialized knowledge that is genuinely intimidating. "Consider the demands on the book historian today," Robert Darnton invites us. First, he or she must command a variety of expertise about the businesses of the book trade: "know[ing] how to make paper, cast type, impose formes, operate presses, correct copy, keep accounts, ship freight, place advertisements, collect bills, satisfy readers and pacify authors." And he or she "must master the variations of those activities at different stages in the evolution of technology and business practices." Fair enough. If this were all, if knowledge of bibliography and the operations of the trades were sufficient, then "the demands on the book historian today" would be ample, but not excessive. Yet, Darnton reminds us that, if we are to attend to the larger purview of book history, then we also "must keep up with the latest varieties of bibliography, [End Page 142] library science, literary criticism, sociology, history and economics." 4 The scope of knowledge required of those who undertake book-historical research is so broad in part because books "refuse to be contained within the confines of a single discipline when treated as objects of study. Neither history nor literature nor economics nor sociology nor bibliography can do justice to all the aspects of the life of a book." According to Darnton, "By its very nature, therefore, the history of books must be . . . interdisciplinary in method." 5

Kevin Sharpe recognizes that many scholars "do not always feel at home with sociologists and Annaliste historians, let alone critical theorists," but nevertheless also argues that book history must incorporate a variety of disciplines because "certain types of historical enquiry . . . need to be an interdisciplinary endeavour." 6 Peter D. McDonald so thoroughly insists on the interdisciplinarity of book history that he decries attempts to institutionalize book-historical scholarship into a formalized academic discipline, preferring instead to emphasize the fluidity of its method: "Bokhistorie er en tverrfaglig undersøkelsesmodus og ikke en `disiplin', et skjæringspunkt og ikke et sted." ["Book history is an interdisciplinary mode of inquiry, not a `discipline', an intersection not a place."] 7 The consensus among book historians that the nature of texts and the aims of contemporary scholarly inquiry require more than a passing knowledge of several academic disciplines does not alter the fact that most practitioners of book history received their professional training in one, or at most two, disciplines. Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker have keenly observed, "The passage of the old bibliography to the new history of the book is not simple: it is accompanied by an abrupt change from a reductionist to a maximalist philosophy." 8 Yet, most of us have been [End Page 143] prepared—both by our education and by the demands of the profession— for intellectual undertakings more appropriately described as minimalist.

Although there certainly are notable exceptions, most book-historical scholarship published since the first issue of Publishing History appeared in 1976 has not been authentically interdisciplinary. In book history, as elsewhere, interdisciplinarity too often means doing more than one thing inadequately, the gesture of tacking on a few purloined paragraphs to satisfy a notional demand, a shallow obeisance to subjects the investigator does not genuinely know. No wonder that in an important review, "History of the Book: An Undisciplined Discipline?," Cyndia Clegg appropriately admonishes us:

to practice interdisciplinary scholarship requires more than becoming conversant in the recent literature of another discipline; it requires a certain humility in the face of long traditions of bibliographic, historiographic, and critical practice, and a willingness to acknowledge and incorporate these precedents along with often unaccustomed methodologies. 9

"Integration," with its cognate "integrity," should be a principal characteristic of our interdisciplinary endeavors, informing the answers we provide and, most importantly. the questions we pose.

The Introduction to the first number of Book History, an annual produced under the auspices of SHARP, enthusiastically declares that the history of the book "is a new kind of history," "that book history is information history," and "that book history provides a more rigorous and empirical approach to such issues as reader response, canon formation, and the politics of literary criticism." 10 Although the editors, both accomplished book historians themselves, promise "new perspectives and innovative methods," they discuss neither historiography nor any of the analytical, historical, sociological, or critical methods by which this new kind of historical investigation might be conducted to produce scholarship of a standard allowing them to "promise . . . that every issue of this journal will . . . change the way we read words on paper" (xi). Almost everywhere in this area of scholarly endeavor there is much Panglossian confidence and little facing up to the stark realities of how little we know and how much we need to think deeply about what we are doing.


How do the time periods we routinely use to demarcate our book-historical investigations shape our understandings by opening up certain perspectives while foreclosing others? The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, [End Page 144] Volume 5 begins with a specific event, the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, and ends with the generalized marker of 1830, a date that serves as a terminus ad quem by which the industrialization of the book is firmly established. Thus, CHBB5 chronicles the proliferation of print, the rise of what Samuel Johnson called "the common reader," and the efflorescence of a thoroughgoing "print culture" in Britain. One practical problem we have encountered is that very few scholars are comfortable covering the whole period 16951830; many students of the eighteenth century do not dare to trespass beyond the French Revolution, or 1800, or the start of George IV's Regency in 1811. Of course, this difficulty obtains in the other direction as well: scholars of the "Romantic Age" (roughly, 1789-1832) are typically loathe to delve into the early or mid eighteenth century. Periodization is a practical matter, of course, but it also profoundly influences how groups of scholars conceptualize and write about developments in the production, distribution, and reception of printed matter. Just as the periodization of literary history has had a thoroughgoing effect on how that subject is researched, taught, studied, and understood, so too do the ways in which we partition book history, both national and international, have a significant impact on future patterns of perception and knowledge.

In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain we have sometimes selected boundaries based on particularly significant legal developments (e.g., the granting of the royal charter to the Stationers' Company in 1557 and the lapse of Licensing), sometimes delineated major changes in the conduct of the book trade (such as the industrialization of book production), and sometimes chosen temporal limits rooted in a more general heuristic purpose (e.g., 1400 "when Geoffrey Chaucer died" for the start of Volume 3. or 2000 for the end of Volume 7 and the History itself). 11 All this seems straightforward enough. Yet, mindful that the forms our questions take often dictate the nature of the answers we develop, it may be salutary to interrogate the matter of periodization in book history, if only as a means of revealing our tacit assumptions and often-unarticulated biases. Every period construction necessarily promotes certain kinds of observations while obscuring others.

One way of thinking about periods might be to give more consideration to the kinds of books being produced. If, for example, religious and theological works overwhelmingly constitute the largest category of publishing activity for the first three centuries of printing, then should ecclesiastical and theological developments and events not enter more fully into delineating our concepts of print culture in the hand-press period? Neither Shakespeare nor Pope, but John Wesley, is the most published individual author in eighteenth-century Britain, while the best-selling corporate works are, of course, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. 12 For play texts, it might [End Page 145] well make sense to consider the so-called "long Restoration" from the reopening of the theaters in 1660 to the establishment of stage licensing in 1737. Such a category could help book historians discern more clearly the complex relationships between dramatic productions of the stage and the production and publishing of the dramatic page. Practitioners of book history have often adhered to traditional divisons operative in either literary or political history because we have inherited these temporal categories as a consequence of our professional training. Yet, it is by no means clear how the reign of Queen Victoria—or, as some prefer, the interval from the passage of the Reform Act (1832) to the accession of Edward VIII (1901)—is especially meaningful for book history as an investigative tool for framing our inquiries, however well it may serve as an heuristic expedient.

As we strive to move toward more international histories of the book, should we use wars, or treaties bearing on trade, or the invention of technologies to demarcate the field? Employing technological milestones seems especially appealing, at least for pan-European book history, though such markers in a global context are of limited utility during most of the history of printing. For certain kinds of works, thinking about the timeframes of international, intellectual, or cultural history can help book historians to cross new boundaries and consider their subjects from a fresh perspective. The notion of the Romantic century, 1750-1850, for example, could stimulate new research. 13 Considering the ways that book histories might be most helpfully partitioned, we may decide that national histories ought to be rich with "thick description" that attends closely to the significance of local events and circumstances, while international accounts could reasonably adhere to a different chronology in seeking to establish a more capacious view. 14

There is a sizeable body of scholarly literature on periodization, but book historians have generally seemed unconcerned about how the partitioning of history affects our perceptions and conditions our understandings.15 15 One instance of a temporal boundary that has had a profound effect [End Page 146] on scholarly research and the structure of our investigations is the decision to terminate the English Short-Title Catalogue at 1800, thereby forestalling the possibility of our having a comprehensive bibliography of the hand-press book in Britain. 16 The consequent lack of bibliographical control for 18011830 vitiates scholars' ability to understand more fully the impact of many significant developments on the book trade, including: government censorship of the press as a response to Radicalism; changes in banking and credit arrangements that fostered the shift from bookselling to publishing; and technological innovations such as stereotyping, lithography, the advent of iron presses (Stanhope, Columbian, Albion, etc.), and the mechanization of paper production. It is a lamentable reality that virtually all the statistical data presented in CHBB5 necessarily terminates in 1800. The Nineteenth-Century Short-Title Catalogue, based on radically different principles than the ESTC, does not pretend to the same inclusiveness and is particularly weak in provincial printing, which in the decades under discussion accounts for the production of vast numbers of titles. 17


If temporal borders have a significant impact upon the ways we think about the histories of printing and publishing, of authorship and reading, then what other kinds of boundaries might help to construct and circumscribe our understandings? As editors of CHBB5, we have had to consider a variety of questions concerning additional boundaries: national, geographical, cultural, legal, linguistic, and economic. (For disciplinary and temporal thresholds, see sections 1 and 2 above.) There is a history of the book in Wales; 18 [End Page 147] the four-volume History of the Book in Scotland is in progress, 19 as is a History of the Irish Book. 20 Nevertheless, the Cambridge series is presumptuously called The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain. 21 CHBB5, to varying degrees, takes cognizance of the book in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, although—because of constraints on the size of our printed volume— nowhere is the attention devoted to these regions as extensive as the editors desired. In much the same way, CHBB5 includes articles on the British book in North America and in India, but, as the first volume of A History of the Book in America, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World tantalizingly suggests, there is a great deal more that might usefully have been said from the British perspective about the traffic in books and cultural consumption. 22 Perhaps the most challenging boundaries we as editors have had to negotiate are those imposed by the limitations of space in a single-volume printed book (see section 10 below). Robert Darnton has rightly observed that "books themselves do not respect limits either linguistic or national," 23 but the reader of CHBB5 will perceive that our geographical reach has been effectively constrained by the boundaries of a physical book.

Despite Darnton's assertion in 1982 that "By its very nature . . . the history of books must be international in scale and interdisciplinary in method," most book-historical research in the past twenty-odd years has been genuinely neither. 24 Writing five years after making his initial declaration, Darnton acknowledged that "the history of the book . . . faces a danger that has restricted the development of other disciplines: nationalization," and urged book historians to "study concrete problems in a comparative manner" that cuts across the boundaries of the nation-state in order to do justice to an [End Page 148] object of study that is "international by nature." 25 Darnton was by no means the first to affirm that, because books cross borders, book history must do so as well. The 1980 "Statement on the History of the Book" produced at the Association of College and Research Libraries' Rare Books and Manuscripts Preconference observed that "since the book is by its nature a cultural force that transcends national boundaries, both the design and compilation of basic tools require international cooperation." 26 The tremendous amount of scholarship on national histories of the book that has been published, or is now in progress, may make international book history on a broad scale genuinely feasible for the first time. When read together, such national histories will enable more comparative scholarship across traditional boundaries, a development that bodes well for the future of the field.

National histories of the book will also promote international book history by underscoring the degree to which the book trade in any individual country has been allied to the business of books elsewhere. The last two volumes of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, covering the years 1830-2000, will be global in their reach, but even earlier volumes in the series have necessarily emphasized the importance of international commerce in the conduct of the book trade. From the time that Caxton printed the first book on English soil in 1477 until the early decades of the eighteenth century, most of the paper and type used in the manufacture of English books was imported from the Continent. The experience of Caxton himself, working as a printer in Cologne and Bruges, reminds us too that book trade personnel also frequently crossed international boundaries. Of course, part of the story that CHBB5 has to tell is how England in the eighteenth century went from being heavily dependent on imported books to developing a thriving trade in books for foreign and colonial export. When considering the British book trade, one might also usefully think about the borders and boundaries—geographical, political, financial, and technological—that obtained within the country itself, not least the role of London in relation to the provinces, even after the lapse of Licensing in 1695. For the Renaissance and eighteenth century, it may be useful when thinking about the provincial book trade in Britain to apply a modified version of the "internal colony" paradigm proposed in a different context by Robert Blauner and Michael Hechter. 27

Still another boundary concerns the kinds of books we study. In book-historical [End Page 149] studies of the hand-press period, and in book history more generally, literary texts have been investigated out of all proportion to their representation in the marketplace. The program for the Annual Meeting of SHARP in July 2003 (at Scripps College in Claremont, California) may be taken as generally representative of the work being done by SHARP members and may therefore be used as a convenient snapshot of current research activity among (mostly British and American) practitioners of book history. The range of topics covered was genuinely impressive; yet, approximately thirty-seven percent of the papers delivered in the panel sessions were directly concerned with literary topics: chiefly the publishing or reading of fiction, poetry, and drama. 28 Given that most scholars conducting book-historical investigations come from literary studies, this tendency toward imaginative literature is understandable, but it may reasonably provoke us to ask, to what extent do `literary' concerns determine the dominant practices in book history? To what extent is this belletristic emphasis desirable? Book history is not literary history; literature, as traditionally conceived, constitutes a relatively small percentage of the books printed in the eighteenth century. In 1753, for example, literary works in English from all genres comprised about 11 percent of all surviving published titles. In the same year, books on religion and theology made up some 21 percent of published works, and writings on government some 20 percent. Nevertheless, such genres are seldom the subject of book-historical investigations. Similarly, the deluge of print necessary for the conduct of business is typically neglected in book-historical studies. 29 It seems that the reluctance of many book historians to traverse disciplinary borders by directing their investigations outside the literary field may in time have a much more far-reaching effect on the practice of book history than the difficulties presented by the prospect of negotiating any other boundary.

The Sociology of Texts

As every pioneer well knows, crossing borders and venturing into new territories can be a difficult and dangerous undertaking. When D. F. McKenzie delivered the inaugural Panizzi Lectures, "Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts," in 1985 at the British Library, it was his application of sociology to bibliography that attracted attention, both pro and con. McKenzie's marshalling of these conjoined disciplinary perspectives was hardly new, however. He first used the concept, "the sociology of the text," and began to [End Page 150] develop the idea as a component of his revisionist program in the second of his Sandars Lectures in 1976, 30 making further applications in "Typography and Meaning: the Case of William Congreve" (delivered in 1977, but not published until 1981). 31 "Type-Bound Topography" (1982) and his 1983 Presidential Address to the Bibliographical Society both enlarged and extended his intellectual project well before the Panizzi Lectures were established. 32

In his first lecture, McKenzie—expert bibliographer, printing historian, and chronicler of apprentices' entrance into the Stationers' Company—explained in summary fashion the necessary elements for conducting a sociology of texts, first by invoking some fundamental principles from Herbert Spencer's classic work, The Study of Sociology (1873): " `Sociology has to recognize truths of social development, structure, and function.' " 33 Dilating on Spencer's text, McKenzie then commented:

As I see it, that stress on structure and function is important. . . . At one level, a sociology simply reminds us of the full range of social relations which the medium of print had to serve, from receipt blanks to bibles. But it also directs us to consider the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission, and consumption. It alerts us to the roles of institutions, and their own complex structures, in affecting the forms of social discourse, past and present. (p. 15)

Although it would be a gross oversimplification to suggest that the marrying of sociology to bibliography produces the offspring of book history, it is nevertheless true that an amicable and generative partnership between these subjects is essential if the nascent interdisciplinary endeavor we call "the history of the book" is to mature toward its full potential. Because the future stature of book history depends upon the accommodation—if not the integration—of these two disciplines in scholarly research, it is deeply worrying that at present most of us currently undertaking book-historical investigations are not truly conversant, much less genuinely adept, in either bibliography or sociology. Believing that such an emphasis is consonant with McKenzie's [End Page 151] intentions and achievements, it seems both fitting and constructive to stress the "and" in the title of the last book he published in his lifetime: Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. 34

Yet, McKenzie himself never developed the sociological program he inaugurated with the thoroughness that one might have hoped for, so that Hugh Amory's critique—" `Sociology', so conceived, has . . . apparently, no methodological content"—must be accepted as an insightful diagnosis. 35 If the `sociology' in our evolving understanding of the sociology of texts is to be more than a generalized marker for vague and uncritically examined notions of social exchange, then perhaps would-be students of book history would do well to read Anthony Giddens' New Rules of Sociological Method. Chapter 4, "The Form of Explanatory Accounts," which, among other matters, treats "[t]he problem of adequacy," is particularly apposite. 36 Generally speaking, Giddens proposes a model of sociological analysis that focuses on "the reproduction of practices." Rejecting the simplistic "dualism of `the individual' and `society'," he understands social structure as "both constituted by human agency and yet . . . at the same time the very medium of this constitution" (128-129). Giddens thus attempts to develop a sociological method that accounts both for individual human beings as purposive agents and for the larger forms of social life that their actions reproduce and transform. 37 Giddens' Central Problems in Social Theory (1979) provides an especially illuminating example of a thoughtfully developed sociological method. 38

The sociology of texts should begin in the study of the practices and institutions of textual production, transmission, and reception. Such a sociology perforce involves the investigation of economic determinants, aesthetic conventions, and ideological factors as it seeks to understand and interpret the roles of print in the construction and maintenance of social practices and [End Page 152] institutions. Books are the products of social processes—sometimes represented as "the communications circuit" or "the literary field"—and they participate in social processes far beyond those associated with textual production and transmission. 39 A sociology of texts should also seek a deeper understanding of how the practices and institutions of textual production, transmission, and reception are imbedded in and informed by larger social and political structures. Moreover, such a sociology must always recognize that print culture at once instantiates and is instantiated by the larger culture of which it is a part. Hence, it is sometimes characterized as "an index of civilisation." 40

Book historians have already begun to cultivate a sociology of knowledge and its allied discipline, the history of ideas—surely a hopeful development indicative of greater things to come from recognizing the usefulness of the social sciences for the investigation and analysis of the worlds of print. 41 Some have found the foundational writings of Karl Mannheim enormously valuable, 42 as are the works of more contemporary scholars, including Stark, Berger and Luckman, and Merton. 43 Some important work has been done [End Page 153] too in the sociology of literature, though scholarship in this sub-field is commonly more uneven in quality, which may help to account for its being generally less well known. 44

The Role of Bibliography in Book History

How can scholars effectively traverse the intellectual divide between bibliography and book history? What cargoes might be traded between these territories to the benefit of both? In CHBB5 we have wrestled with questions about the use and display of bibliographical information of various kinds, as well as with larger concerns about the relationship between particular observations and more far-reaching analysis. In any history that gestures toward comprehensiveness, there is an inevitable tension between the communication of knowledge and the limited provision of the information from which it is derived. A still more important matter, however, is the role that bibliography should play in book-historical research. In a thought-provoking paper, T. H. Howard-Hill has asked, "What is the contribution of bibliography to the history of the book?" His answer, in part, is that bibliography enables "already historically-sensitive book historians to attend to the physiscal object in history." 45 This understanding accords well with the 1980 "Statement on the History of the Book" in which leading book historians situated bibliographical scholarship at the center of book-historical research. "The attempt to understand the influence of changes in book production and dissemination is particularly demanding," they observed. "In the first place, one needs to know the basic facts of what was printed, by whom and for whom," but beyond such fundamental investigations there is also a great deal of exacting bibliographical work to be done, because "[d]etailed bibliographic studies, dictionaries of printers, and inventories of both public and private libraries are among the time-consuming and exacting and fundamental studies that are needed." 46

Assessing the current state of book history in The Journal of American [End Page 154] History, Joan Shelley Rubin remarks, "Bibliography remains important." 47 David Hall offers a more personal testimony, "My education at the hands of the bibliographers is ongoing." 48 Nevertheless, the relationship between bibliography and book history is sometimes characterized by vexing ambiguities and competing demands. Hall has recorded that at a scholarly meeting he attended, "The most explicit disagreement concerned texts and their transmittal: to what extent should historians undertake bibliographical research before they can proceed in confidence? Meanwhile, it was suggested that bibliographers put their skills to work answering questions of importance to historians. . . . This exchange of expectations might not have satisfied either party. . . ." 49

One problem facing book-historical studies is that many scholars have an inadequate grounding in bibliography. It seems reasonable to propose that bibliographical literacy ought to be requisite to book history in the way that all physicians—whether surgeons, research immunologists, or epidemiologists—have studied human anatomy. Yet, it remains a disturbing truth that most of us engaged in book-historical scholarship received no bibliographical training as part of our graduate studies. The results when historians of the book are, apparently, ignorant of bibliographical rudiments can be memorably infelicitous. One celebrated scholar recently made much ado about the reprinting of a poetic miscellany many years after its first appearance, adducing from the title page strong evidence of the original edition's aesthetic and commercial success. Regrettably, however, the "new edition" was merely a reissue of sheets that had long been in storage. Such elementary oversights not only bring down individual arguments, they also potentially compromise the integrity and reputation of book historical research as a mode of inquiry.

G. Thomas Tanselle, delivering a lecture on "The History of Books as a Field of Study," observed that "The kind of work now labeled `histoire du livre' [which Tanselle characterizes as "the study of the role of printed books in society"] and the kind called `analytical bibliography' [that is, the scholarly investigation of "the printing history of individual books"] may be for the most part associated with different groups of people, but both will be less fruitful than they might be if they develop as independent disciplines."50 50 A dialogue between these two areas of inquiry would contribute [End Page 155] to book history because the "connection between physical detail [bibliographical signs] and intellectual content, between analytical bibliography and textual meaning, has a logical bearing on the role of books in society" (54, 53).

Tanselle is right to acknowledge that "both will be less fruitful," and so it is helpful to emphasize that book history might also enrich analytical (and other varieties of) bibliography as well, since the observation and analysis of bibliographic codes are always interpretative acts. Like book history, bibliography—whether descriptive, analytical, enumerative, historical, or physical—is invariably a critical and critically-laden exercise in historical interpretation. It is critical in the root-sense of the word: bibliography requires the repeated exercise of informed judgment. Concomitantly, knowledge about the production and transmission of individual works (or, in McKenzie's and McGann's terms, of the particular texts of a work), 51 often the fundamental stuff of bibliography, can be essential to the conduct of intellectually rigorous book history. One of the primary lessons at the intersection of bibliography and book history is that "intellectual content" might not be so easily equated with "textual meaning" apart from all other bibliographic codes in the text, because the book is a complex system of signifiers, all of which contribute to the ways in which meaning is made. 52 In this regard, the idea of the book as a volume (volumen), a capacious container of many and varied codes, is particularly appealing.

The rigorous and creative application of bibliographical knowledge to book-historical research is, in my view, the single most important desideratum for book history today. It is difficult to imagine how a sociology of texts that does not integrate the contributions of bibliography could make an important and lasting contribution to book history.

Understanding What the Gaps in Our Knowledge Might Mean

When in the late 1980s D. F. McKenzie first proposed the idea of undertaking a multi-volume history of the book in Britain, a number of colleagues wondered whether the state of our knowledge was as yet sufficiently advanced for such a project. 53 Some fifteen years later, the question is still highly appropriate. The lacunae in CHBB5 are far from trivial. They include: the sale of [End Page 156] Irish books in Northern England, especially post 1760; the market for Scottish books in Ireland; the importation of books to the colonies from Scotland, Northern England, and Ireland; and a range of issues concerning piracy (discussed in section 7, below). Although some chapters in the volume reflect outstanding scholarly achievement, others—often of no less merit—indicate that many more specialist studies are needed. Nevertheless, it is the hope of the General Editors and of the volume editors that book history will benefit from the Cambridge History both as a source of knowledge and as a stimulus to further investigation.

In The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Robert Darnton indicates that "we need to know more about the world behind the books" and offers an important series of questions that would help lead book historians to that knowledge:

How did writers pursue careers in the Republic of Letters? Did their economic and social condition have much effect on their writing? How did publishers and booksellers operate? Did their ways of doing business influence the literary fare that reached their customers? What was that literature? Who were its readers? And how did they read? 54

Commenting on Darnton's professed ignorance, John Sutherland is regrettably imperceptive when he claims, "This questionnaire tacitly admits to vast areas of academic incompetence." 55 Book historians—perhaps more than researchers in traditional fields or even in longer-established interdisciplinary approaches—should be mindful of avoiding the "Sutherland syndrome": a false belief that the admission of ignorance ought automatically be equated with incompetence. In the case of Darnton, the charge is absurd. The real danger, however, is that book historians—either suffering from the syndrome, or fearing the aspersions of those who are afflicted—will themselves be inclined neither to admit publicly what they do not know, nor distinguish among the several causes of their nescience.

As I see it, there are three principal classes to consider: 1) errors of perception, synthesis or analysis, or the failure to adduce what is already known; in such cases the investigator is ordinarily unaware of his or her ignorance; 2) a lack of knowledge that points toward future research which seems tractable, but has yet to be undertaken; 56 and 3) ignorance arising from gaps in the historical record—surviving documentation is so often incomplete and much that we would be delighted to study is wholly absent. The destruction of vital Stationers' Company records in "the Blitz" of 1940 is merely a [End Page 157] recent instance of such losses attributable to a variety of causes, including: the Great Fire of London in 1666; the intentional destruction of correspondence (as when James Dodsley burned the letters of his bookselling brother, Robert); the use of old business documents as wastepaper for bookbinding; and the sacrifice of old letters and ledgers as "Martyrs of Pies and Reliques of the Bum." 57 It does us no good to mourn for all that is lost, however, any more than it did for Thomasina Coverly to weep for the library at Alexandria in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. 58 Instead, scholars do a service to their colleagues, present and future, by indicating when their experience teaches them that particular instances of scholarly ignorance fall into one of these classes. In A Nation and its Books: A History of the Book in Wales, the editors Jones and Rees are frank about areas in which "much of the basic research has yet to be undertaken." 59 Such admissions manifest responsible scholarship, rather than incompetence. The candid disclosure of what we do not know, and the careful assessment of the reasons for our incomprehension, can help direct future investigations and lead us to more adequate understandings.

The De Facto Culture of Intellectual Property

Scrutinizing the contents of dictionaries, encyclopedias, poetic miscellanies, magazines, and other works teaches us that, for all the careful tracing of legal cases that scholars have done, we still know very little about the de facto culture of "intellectual property" as it has operated in the book trade. 60 Although this regrettable gap in our knowledge obtains not only for the hand-press period in Britain, but also internationally and during later periods as well, eighteenth-century England makes a good case in point. 61 Biographical dictionaries and other eighteenth-century works of reference typically recycled information and sometimes reprinted large passages from earlier works with little or no alteration—viz., the Biographia Britannica (1747-66) borrowed extensively from the General Dictionary (1734-41), and Robert Shiells' Lives of the Poets (1753) used material from both of [End Page 158] these—without any known accusations of plagiarism being made. 62 As Ephraim Chambers stated in the article on "Plagiary" in his Cyclopaedia (1728):

Dictionary-Writers, at least such as meddle with Arts and Sciences, seem exempted from the common Laws of Meum and Tuum. . . . Their Works are supposed, in great Measure, Assemblages of other Peoples, and what they take from Others they do it avowedly, and in the open Sun . . . and if they rob, they don't do it any otherwise, than as the Bee does, for the publick Service. Their Occupation is not pillaging, but collecting Contributions. 63

Even Johnson's highly celebrated Prefaces Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets (1779-81) is very free in its use of sources—the great biographer routinely fails to acknowledge evident debts to published works, especially biographical dictionaries and other works of reference. 64 Johnson's work was, in turn, plagiarized almost immediately. 65

Just as with reference books, so too are many eighteenth-century verse miscellanies closely related to one or more earlier publications, though the degree to which `new' miscellanies are indebted to antecedent collections has not been generally recognized. Poems by the Most Eminent Ladies of Great Britain and Ireland Re-Published from the Collection of G. Colman and B. Thornton . . . with Considerable Alterations, Additions, and Improvements (1785) provides an illustrative example. Chantel Lavoie has revealed that the anonymous editors of the 1785 text "borrowed heavily [without acknowledgment] from a four-volume collection compiled by James Harrison and titled The Lady's Poetical Magazine, or Beauties of British Poetry," published in 1781-82. Moreover, "Harrison had, in turn, borrowed [also without acknowledgment] older material from the first edition of Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755) to include in The Lady's Poetical Magazine." 66 Thus, the 178182 collection utilized the 1755 anthology, the 1785 version of which used material from the 1781-82 volumes. It is plausible that the 1785 compilers may have elected to remain anonymous because they owned neither the Colman [End Page 159] and Thornton text, nor the works they had arrogated from Harrison. In the second half of the eighteenth century, such cases of unauthorized appropriation appear to be more the rule than the exception. 67 The same is true for song books and jest books; even many grammars and other school books, as well as almanacs—all of which potentially constituted a highly lucrative market—were regularly plagiarized.

Imaginative works too manifest an attitude toward intertextuality and literary borrowing that suggests we need to think beyond the body of statutes and legal cases regarding copyright if we are to develop a more realistic understanding of how copyright and its attendant notions of intellectual property actually functioned in the period. The famous diatribe against plagiarism in Book 5, Chapter 1 of Tristram Shandy—which turns out to have been plagiarized from Robert Burton, who himself stole passages of his text from others—is merely one of the more memorable instances of such borrrowing. Jonathan Swift, who may have inspired Sterne's clever joke, also mockingly implicated himself as a plagiarist in his Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift when the persona claims about the Dean, "But what he writ was all his own" (Poems 493, line 318)—a line stolen almost verbatim from Sir John Denham's 1667 poem, On Mr. Abraham Cowley (l. 30). More seriously, Alexander Pope was routinely accused by his rivals and enemies of "plagiary,"68 68 often with good cause. 69

Most importantly in this vein, there is a tremendous gap in our knowledge about piracy—especially in northern England and Scotland, and so-called "moral piracy" in Ireland. 70 So much basic research is yet to be done concerning who the pirates were, the extent of their enterprise, the distribution networks they employed (domestic, foreign, and colonial), and the nature of their economic impact. The paucity of our knowledge on these fronts effectively means that there is a significant flaw in our working models of the ways in which the book trade operated in the British Isles, c. 1750-1830. The work of other book historians and the nature of piracy itself suggests that the de facto culture of intellectual property remains an inadequately understood aspect of book history across most periods and in most places. Although I have not investigated the matter in detail, it seems that, for eighteenth-century Britain at least, the gaps in our knowledge come from all three classes of ignorance: a failure to synthesize what is already known, a promising area of research that has not been properly investigated, and, inevitably, lacunae in the surviving historical record, especially with regard to clandestine activities. [End Page 160]

Some Problems Involved in Reading as a Subject of Book History

The subject of reading presents a number of significant problems for book historians, perhaps the most obvious among them being controversies over assessing literacy—do signatures in marriage registers really signify functional literacy? 71 —and the nature of the so-called "reading revolution." 72 Yet, there is a more fundamental and not wholly insurmountable difficulty in studying the history of reading. It may well be impossible to write a representative history of reading based on the experiences of individuals because the overwhelming majority of reading events are ephemeral and those that are recorded are necessarily atypical. How can we develop historically sound approaches to scrutinizing reading practices when most direct evidence of actual reading is merely anecdotal?

Alastair Fowler approaches the same problem from a slightly different angle, noting that scholars seeking to establish a history of reading will "soon encounter an insuperable difficulty: the absence of data." Accordingly, a line of historical inquiry that depends on the close examination of an individual's reading practices—what Fowler styles a "minute phenomenology of reading"—ultimately "depends on a nonexistent history of sensibility and psychological events" and, hence, "is not very practical." "In the end," he argues, "the only reader responses we can know in detail are our own." For Fowler, there is no authentic way to "resolve the impasse of historical discontinuity." 73

Despite the great enthusiasm among book historians for the study of reading, Andrew Hadfield, co-editor of A History of the Irish Book, Volume III, The Irish Book in English 1550-1800 (OUP, 2006), pursues a similar line of thought, writing of "the sort of problems that plague anyone working in the now ubiquitous but rather amorphously defined interdisciplinary subject, [End Page 161] the `history of the book.' " Above all, he notes the simple truth that "Evidence left behind by readers is generally scanty, and all too often scholars are left trying to work out what the reader intended when he or she—if an identity is known, let alone a date—underlined a particular passage." 74 As such observations suggest, the value of collecting records of readers' experiences—often isolated and invariably anomalous—may be rather suspect. 75 It might well be desirable to know what a person read, especially if we can learn the salient facts of that reader's life (age, gender, occupation, education, income, social contacts, etc.), but to know how that person read is almost always historically unrecoverable.

Leah Price also evinces concern about how historians think about reading practices and the historical evidence they find. "Familiarity makes reading appear deceptively knowable," she observes. On the one hand, "[t]he most impassioned reading destroys its own traces" because it goes unrecorded, while on the other, "studies drawing on autobiography or marginalia alike are biased toward certain kinds of readers and styles of reading." 76 Even potentially more comprehensive projects such as the Reading Experience Database "are inevitably opportunistic in their cherry-picking of decontextualized `reading experienes' from sources whose own structure and content differ widely" with the result that historians of reading may be "like magpies" (313).

These difficulties are of genuine consequence and too often have not been sufficiently acknowledged. Thus, we may reasonably ask: given the frequently suspect nature of the evidence and the troublesome ways that book historians have sometimes used it, how might we conduct research in this important area with a greater sense of intellectual responsibility? However formidable the evidential problems we have been considering, the epistemological predicaments presented by the surviving traces of individual readers' experiences [End Page 162] do not mean that we should abandon the history of reading as an area of inquiry. No less an accompished historian and historiographer than Carlo Ginzburg has argued for the admissibility of incomplete and even distorted evidence, provided that the interpreters of such information have a thorough understanding of its limitations. "Without a thorough analysis of its distortions (the codes according to which it has been constructed and/or it must be perceived)," he insists, "a sound historical reconstruction is impossible." 77

In addition, it would seem profitable to develop a history of constructing and construing meaning not merely from the isolated and evidentially problematic recorded reactions of readers, but also from bibliography and publishing history, from the ways in which material forms—bibliographical codes of many kinds—both effect and affect meanings. The purposive actions of various agents in the book trade are traceable in tens of thousands of books and are typically calculated to influence their benign reception in as strong a manner as possible. Accordingly, we ought to ground our reading and reception studies more thoroughly in physical bibliography, as well as in the analysis of book advertisements, reviews, promotional campaigns, and the like. This is not to say that such studies could be altogether free from problems of historical interpretation, but at least they would rest on sound epistemological foundations. Understanding that the book, every book, is an integrated system of signifiers and that the bibliographical codes embodied in a particular book most often reflect interpretations and decisions about the audience, meaning, and cultural significance of that book, some of the most adept book historians have convincingly delineated the relationships between forms and meanings. Striving to exhibit the complex relationships between texts and readers in the production of meaning, Roger Chartier has demonstrated that "the editorial history of Molièré's comedies has a significant impact on the reconstruction of contemporary understandings of them," and D. F. McKenzie has done much the same for the plays of Congreve. 78 Both scholars employ a synthetic method, embracing "textual criticism, the history of the book, and cultural sociology" to show how the presentation of the text is calculated to affect its reception. 79 If the history of reading and reception [End Page 163] were more nearly allied to the study of the material book, we might well find that these areas of inquiry are mutually informing. 80

Moreover, the study of how readers make meanings should not be primarily confined to scrutinizing individual reader responses. Rather, in keeping with the need to develop a richer and more complex sociology of texts (see section 4 above), book historians might profitably focus their efforts on reading as a social practice that is conditioned by other socially constituted practices and institutions—just as it, in turn, exercises an influence on them. Recognizing that even the most solitary reader is, inescapably, engaged in a culturally situated pursuit, we may perceive that there is a tremendous scholarly labor to be undertaken in locating reading within the complex forms of social life that condition this activity at any given moment in history. Accordingly, we ought to seek a better understanding of how the practices and institutions of reading and reception are imbedded in and informed by larger cultural and political structures. So situated in the sociology of texts, the study of reading holds a scholarly potential commensurate with its difficulty as an area of investigation.


"Follow the money" is an excellent adage for book historians. The production, distribution, and consumption of texts are almost always co-determined by commercial and/or economic factors. Whether we are calculating the area of pastureland needed by a medieval monastery operating a scriptorium in order to maintain a sufficient number of animals for parchment production (surplus to requirements for food to feed hungry scribes), or are factoring in the cost of severance packages when Bertlesmann has acquired a publisher of scientific journals in North America, we cannot think very far about the transmission of texts before we bump into matters of money because, invariably, money matters. Books are business. It seems strange, then, that so few book historians possess economic knowledge, while the rest of us know almost nothing about prices, income, capital, markets and consumer behavior, financing, taxation, money and banking, and other rudiments of elementary macro- and microeconomics. 81 And who among our number knows very much [End Page 164] about the history of accounting or the evolution of business practices in our respective periods? If commercial motivations dominate the world of print production and dissemination, then how is it that we so often give them such scant attention? 82 Perhaps for a start we should all resolve to read G. R. Hawke's Economics for Historians (1980). 83

In studying a business in which capital outlay was so substantial, credit was routinely extended to customers for six months or more, return on investment was slow to accrue, and bankruptcy was common, it is particularly important to recognize how changes in financing and credit arrangements fostered or hindered growth. This is especially true if we are to understand how adjustments in capitalization drove the shift from bookselling to publishing in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. In a similar vein, we have yet to develop satisfactory accounts of the book trade's behavior in—and varying responses to—the well-documented fluctuations of national economics. 84 Although there is a dearth of surviving business and banking records for the book trade in the long eighteenth century, most of what we do have has not yet been subject to a thoroughgoing financial analysis. Nor has much comparative or synthetic work been done either to document the finances of agents in the trade, 85 or to develop more complete models of how businesses actually worked.

Most scholars in the humanities, including many book historians, are virtually innumerate, a liability that affects far more than our general inability to deal adequately with economics and with business records. Much book-historical work manifests a statistical innocence that impoverishes otherwise valuable research. If we are to understand scholarly writings that presuppose the reader knows the rudiments of statistics, then we need to progress beyond the definitions of mode, median, and mean. 86 Most of us are not at home [End Page 165] with such basic concepts as frequency distributions, categorical independent variables, or continuous independent variables, much less multiple regression models. Who among us can interpret a chi-square test, something a first-year undergraduate biologist or sociologist would be expected to do? Roderick Floud's An Introduction to Quantitative Methods for Historians should be required reading. 87 It would also be salutary for more book historians to be familiar with SPSS, the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, the most commonly utilized computer program for basic statistical analysis. 88 More advanced scholars examining large bodies of data, such as the ESTC, would probably benefit from developments in sampling theory, though in such cases close collaboration with a professional statistician is probably required. 89

One of the chief methodological lacunae in Anglo-American bibliography and book history also seems to stem, in part, from our discomfort with numbers. This oversight in need of redress is our failure to interrogate the bibliographical tools at our disposal—most especially the ESTC—so that we know their strengths and limitations. Virtually all book historians routinely employ enumerative bibliographies for their research, but many apparently give little thought to the details of inclusion criteria, to problems raised by varying survival rates, or to economic constraints and other important factors among the circumstances that produced such research resources. 90 A common scientific adage is: "All measurements are wrong, but some are more wrong than others. The key is to know how wrong your measurement is." [End Page 166] This notion has its corollary in the idea of "tolerance" in engineering. 91 W. W. Greg has calculated that, of the 11,000 works entered in the Stationers' Register for 1557-71 and 1576-1640, "6,100 are identified as extant, a percentage of almost 55.5." Reasoning that "there does not appear any very strong ground for supposing that entrance or non-entrance affected survival," he nevertheless concedes: "it is possible . . . that in the field of ephemeral publications, where survival is least likely, the proportion of copies entered may have been somewhat lower." 92 D. F. McKenzie's work indicates that what the Wing Catalogue (1641-1700) includes "may not be as high as even 60 to 70 percent of the titles and editions actually published." 93 In his examination of survival rates for ABCs, psalters, and primers from the Stationers' stock in sample years from 1660-1700, John Barnard has documented enormous losses: although some 14,000 psalters were printed annually, only four copies are found in Wing. The loss rates for primers is also astonishingly high: for the 1676-77 fiscal year, "84,000 passed through the Treasurer's hands," yet they "are represented in Wing by a single 16mo black-letter copy in the British Library, dated c. 1670." 94

My own calculations for British books in the eighteenth century suggest that, for approximately ten percent of the titles and editions published, not a single copy exists. 95 Of course, by definition, none of these lost works or editions is represented in the ESTC, a fact that surely should have a significant effect on many of our searches. 96 Because loss rates vary widely according [End Page 167] to both format and genre, for certain classes of titles and editions the ESTC is far off the mark. A great deal more work will need to be done before we can calibrate the tools we use and, hence, employ them with greater fidelity to the historical phenomena under investigation.

Producing a Printed History and Considering Its Use and Readership

Both the editors and the chapter authors of CHBB5 have felt enormously constrained by the limitations imposed on us in trying to create a single-volume history that satisfactorily chronicles the major developments concerning the book in Britain and its colonies from 1695 to 1830. Chief among these constraints has been space: the topic of virtually every chapter in the volume is deserving of at least one substantial monograph. In a few felicitous intances we already have genuinely impressive book-length studies to which readers may be directed. Invariably, however, the question of comprehensiveness versus depth presents itself. We have tried to address this tension in part by including case studies and providing tables of data about publications and book-trade personnel. Nevertheless, it is impossible to satisfy the competing demands of depth and breadth in a wholly satisfactory fashion.

Closely allied to this issue is the question of what a weighty tome in a multi-volume national history of the book is for: is it a work of ready reference or a book to be read at some length? Is its chief purpose to provide information, or to synthesize vast quantities of information into knowledge? Working in concert with our contributors, Michael Turner and I have tried to produce a book that would be both a serviceable work of reference and an engaging text for more extensive reading. Thorough indexing and cross-referencing have been paramount in making the volume easily navigable for the reference-minded reader. Although CHBB5 tells the story of the efflorescence of print culture in Britain during the end of the hand-press period and chronicles the shift from bookselling to publishing (with its attendant technological and financial developments), we have imposed no orthodoxies, nor prescribed any investigative methods; instead, our hope has always been that a variety of emphases and approaches would reflect the diversity of book-historical studies as practiced in our day. Invariably, we have insisted on scholarly rigor and transparency about what remains unknown, believing that these best serve our readership and the enterprise of book history.

It seems inevitable that a book historian should ask: what kind of print [End Page 168] product is this and for whom is it intended? Here I must admit to an admixture of pride and shame: its pitch is authentically scholarly and its price is genuinely prohibitive, costing c. £110. The first volume of A History of the Book in America is 662 pages and costs $160 USD; volumes three and four of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain run to 832 and 920 pages respectively and are currently priced at the paltry sum of £95. 97 Paradoxically, then, in Britain and America we have produced national histories of the book that most book historians cannot afford to own. In contrast, consumers pay just $50 AUS for the first volume to appear in A History of the Book in Australia, making the 444-page book well within the reach of both academics and a popular audience. 98 One way of addressing the problems of inclusiveness, access, and price is to produce a web-based national history of the book, which is free to all. Bibliopolis, the electronic national history of the printed book in the Netherlands from 1460 to the present, offers free access to a survey of the history of the printed book in the Netherlands (in 158 parts written by 40 book historians); an image database for the Dutch history of the book ranging from portraits of printers and publishers to examples of Dutch printing, typefaces, printer's devices, and watermarks; digitized full texts of the most important book-historical studies; and links to relevant databases, websites, and electronic catalogues. 99 Managed and maintained by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, Bibliopolis solves many of the most pressing problems associated with a printed national history of the book with sufficient success to make one wonder if books are necessarily the best medium for publishing national histories of the book. 100

Volume 5 of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain has more than forty contributors from eight nations writing on topics ranging from printed ephemera to antiquarian books. If it is a success, then the whole will be greater than the mere sum of its individual parts. When the fruit of so much scholarly labor is presented in the aggregate, the reader may reasonably expect that new patterns and new understandings will emerge. As one of its co-editors, I hope that it will be a standard work of reference for many years to come. As a scholar, however, I look forward to the day when book history will have developed sufficiently to require an altogether new version. [End Page 169] If the contemporary, educated reader does not find vexing questions as well as helpful answers in the pages of CHBB5, and if the discerning book historian is not led to consider some of the historiographical issues mooted here—to wonder how our historical inquiries might be conducted differently and better—then the book will not have fulfilled its promise.

Reflecting on the state of Anglo-American book history and on the ways in which our investigations might develop even greater rigor, creative vision, and sophistication, we may feel with a growing sense of distress that there is a great deal of homework each of us needs to do. It may seem daunting that the demands of book history appear to require a basic knowledge of so many disciplines and, ideally, fluency in several. Clearly, no scholar, however talented, could master all the fields that make essential contributions to book-historical studies. Perhaps, then, it is best that we perceive book history, not as a discipline that any one of us can command, but rather as a multidisciplinary practice that is necessarily collaborative. In his seminal essay of 1982, "What Is the History of Books?," Robert Darnton called attention to the new coordination of activities among an international group of "historians, literary scholars, sociologists [and] librarians." 101 The promise of that statement has yet to be fulfilled, but the need for such collaboration—for a catholic, capacious approach to our undertaking, for promoting a more communitarian scholarly sensibility and practice—is surely vital. Book history is an interdisciplinary endeavor that scholars may creatively undertake together.

One vital aspect of such a collegial enterprise concerns our roles as educators in the academy. Because the scholar-teacher is perforce always a student as well, we must instruct and learn from each other, especially as book history continues to develop apace. At the same time, we bear a delightful responsibility for educating our students to surpass us. Accordingly, this medley of observations and reflections from a student of book history with much to learn is tendered, not as a counsel of despair, but in the hope that it might help to invigorate the cluster of interdisciplinary practices we call the history of the book.

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