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What Is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books (review)
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Joseph A. Dane has been a prolific writer on book culture for the past decade, and his most recent contribution, What Is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books, follows his previous publications with regard to methodology and argument. His “early printed book” is really STC books, eighteenth-century imprints, and incunabula, with a strong emphasis on English publications. Dane chooses to analyze the material book, although he does add historical context to his review of textual bibliography later on in the text. Oddly, he redefines the generally accepted concept of the “book” as being either a “book” or “book-copy.” The “book” is more an esoteric understanding of an edition, whereas a “book-copy” is a specific volume. Dane’s work has several of these kinds of linguistic peculiarities, which some could argue assist the generalist reader in navigating a somewhat technical field. However, at times this style seems to overcomplicate already clarified problems.

The work is broken into two parts: elements of material books and history of books; and histories of book-copies. This provides some overlap topically, but does allow for greater detail of example in the latter section. Part I includes chapters such as “Typography and Terminology,” while Part II emphasizes “Provenance, Ideal Copy, and the Ersatz Book. “The most useful contribution is chapter 7: “Illustrations, Techniques and Applications,” which touches briefly on different styles of illustration. There are several other books that more clearly articulate some of the issues with which Dane is concerned, but rarely do they discuss illustrations in such a concise manner. Generally a reader is required to select a detailed account of relief, intaglio, and planographic prints, but Dane has managed to provide an introduction to the field without overwhelming the non-specialist reader. While this is certainly a useful chapter, he also discusses photographic methods, which do not fit well with his focus on the hand press period. There are instances of this several times throughout the work, which do provide context, but also detract from the introductory style of such a book.

The less effective parts of the book involve Dane’s personal approach to bibliography. He includes moments of insight which are not always particularly insightful. For example, his bibliographic rule is “never leave a library without knowing more than you knew going into it, and never close a book without knowing more than you did before opening it” (13). This statement does much to express his personal relationship with his profession, but does little to contribute to the field of bibliography or elucidate issues therein. His conclusion contains this same kind of biographical account, which, again, confuses the direction of the text.

Generally speaking, Dane’s work is a functional introduction to the field of bibliography. There are, however, other options available which may be more constructive. For clarification of basic terminology one might select John Carter and Nicolas Barker’s ABC for Book Collectors, and Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance is an excellent choice for an overview of the historical context of book production in the hand press period. Interestingly, Dane has chosen to avoid some of the more influential works in the field, presumably to avoid overly engaging with context in a study of the material book. This idea has merit, yet his bibliography includes several works on book culture. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book is included, which he describes as dated (7), but more recent monographs by Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns are completely absent. Also, there are moments where Dane refers to particular issues, such as the use of specific typefaces, but does not elaborate or clarify adequately. He states, for example, that “Certain German typefonts can effectively be used only for German; bastard is used only for vernacular French and English” (124). Yet as Paul F. Grendler points out in his “Form and Function in Italian Renaissance Popular Books,” the situation surrounding typeface is much more complicated than this. Grendler’s works, as well as numerous studies by specialists on the early book in Italy, are also conspicuously absent from the bibliography, making further research difficult for an introductory reader.


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