In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Buying into Classes: The Practice of Book Selection in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Edward H. Jacobs* (bio)

Over the last three decades, the social and cultural “history of the book” associated with Lucien Febvre, Henri-Jean Martin, Donald McKenzie, Robert Darnton, and Roger Chartier has become what The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1991 called a “hot topic.” 1 In large part, book history has attracted such widespread interest because, as Darnton observes, it risks “interdisciplinarity run riot.” 2 Fundamentally influenced by Febvre’s work as a founder of the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, Febvre and Martin’s foundational L’Apparition du Livre of 1958 (published in English as The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800) certainly launched book history as a form of “l’histoire totale,” undertaking to analyze the overall “influence and the practical significance of the printed book during the first 300 years of its existence.” 3 Despite considerable differences in methods and topical interests, the most prominent shapers of book history since Febvre and Martin follow their basic view of book history as a massive, interdisciplinary project. Darnton, for instance, calls on book history to analyze “the entire communication process” in “all its variations over space and time and in all its relations with other systems, economic, social, political, and cultural, in the surrounding environment.” 4 Since the publication of “Printers of the Mind” in 1969, McKenzie has in a related way been practicing and calling for a “sociology of texts” that not only analyzes how “the material forms of books, the non-verbal elements of the typographic notations [End Page 43] within them, the very disposition of space itself, have an expressive function in conveying meaning,” but also “consider[s] the human motives and interactions which texts involve at every stage of their production, transmission and consumption” and “alerts us to the roles of institutions, and their own complex structures, in affecting the forms of social discourse, past and present.” 5 In his recent The Order of Books, Roger Chartier poses in similarly interdisciplinary terms the “fundamental question” that for him “underlies this approach that combines textual criticism, bibliography, and cultural history: in the societies of the ancien régime, how did increased circulation of printed matter transform forms of sociability, permit new modes of thought, and change people’s relationship with power?” 6

But despite such influential calls for book history to analyze how print technology and culture have entered into human culture generally, most actual histories of the book have focused on how book trade practices have interacted with the “literary” acts of writing and reading texts. For instance, even though Chartier complains in The Order of Books that the French tradition of histoire du livre “focused, if not on reading practices, at least on the sociology of readers,” he criticizes both this tradition and Anglo-American analytical bibliography for thereby minimizing attention to the construction of authorship by print trade practices. 7 Similarly, while McKenzie describes how Jacob Tonson’s changes in the format and layout of Congreve’s plays augmented their canonical and social “status,” ultimately he stresses how this bibliographical construction of status “authored” Congreve and transformed the practice of reading plays into something more directly representative of the forms and rhythms of theatrical performance. 8 Like Chartier’s, this is a brilliant and provocative analysis. Yet might one not also usefully ask, for example, how the construction of discursive “status” through an intensification of compositional and typographical ordering related to other ways of constructing status, such as dandy dressing or refined manners, or to the various ways in which enlightened culture ordered other spaces (such as the urban landscape) into sign-systems? 9 Certainly it would be reductive to characterize “the history of the book” as a monolithic discipline built around the premise that the book trade affected culture preeminently through reading and writing. Yet such an assumption does seem pervasive, as these instances and the title of the recently formed Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing indicate. Because such privileging of reading and writing as the modes through which book trade practices affected society inevitably marginalizes (or short-circuits...

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pp. 43-64
Launched on MUSE
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