- The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, and: The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century
Fixity, we imagine, has long defined the printed word. When we open a modern book, we expect to find a standardized text that faithfully preserves an author’s thoughts or a researcher’s data. And yet in early-modern Europe it was not self-evident that printed books should possess these qualities, for, as Adrian Johns argues in The Nature of the Book, fixity, standardization, the preservative qualities of print, and even the notion of authorship are all modern constructions.
In this, his first book, Johns examines a variety of print-world domains in early-modern London, including the “literatory life” of individual printers, as well as the intellectual [End Page 149] and social environments of the Stationers’ Company, the Royal Society, and the Royal Observatory. What he discovers is that those involved in the business of printing faced the combined hazards of piracy, plagiarism, and outright “usurpation,” all of which frequently rendered printed texts unreliable sources. Consequently, booksellers and printers were compelled to develop personal and institutional credit in order to establish the authenticity and value of their texts. They manufactured this credit through an adherence to intricate rules of “propriety,” which governed all aspects of the trade, from how a particular volume was made to how it was displayed in the bookshop. While strong claims were nevertheless made for the reliability of printed texts, Johns tells us in a fascinating chapter examining contemporary histories of printing (chap. 5), these were always “responding to some explicit or implicit assertion to the contrary” (371).
In The Nature of the Book, Johns therefore overturns many of the arguments central to Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979). He challenges not only the notion of a printing revolution in the sixteenth century, but, more importantly, the stable (and curiously metaphysical) “print culture” envisioned by Eisenstein. In particular, he attacks the notion that fixity was an inherent attribute of the printed word. Johns is not alone in dissenting from the “Eisenstein thesis.” Several historians of science have already offered a substantial challenge to her work in The Advent of Printing (1987), and Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton have elsewhere revised much of what appeared in her 1979 book.
Johns’s dedication to archival research is evident throughout his work. The Nature of the Book draws extensively from printed and manuscript sources, as well as a large body of contemporary secondary literature. A careful examination of his bibliography, however, reveals one of the principal limitations of The Nature of the Book; the largest portion of primary sources is from the seventeenth century. This leads to a skewing of the picture for the early-modern world of printing. The problem is most evident in the chapter on reading (chap. 6), where Johns makes only passing references to the sixteenth or eighteenth centuries (and cites almost exclusively seventeenth-century sources) and yet draws conclusions about “early-modern” England. The same exclusivity appears to a lesser degree in most of the other chapters; the chief exceptions are chapters one and eight, which treat the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively, in greater detail. In the final analysis, then, The Nature of the Book has much more to tell us about the seventeenth century than the whole of the early-modern period, and Johns falls short of his ambitious goal to explain “how the people of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries constructed and construed the craft” of printing (5).
Nevertheless, Johns, like his predecessors Chartier and Darnton, has succeeded admirably in shifting the focus in book history away from Whiggish celebrations of the art of printing. Indeed, we can...