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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 638-641
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The "Book" in the Atlantic World
Antonio T. Bly
College of William and Mary
Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds.The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. xi + 638, illustrations, charts, notes, maps. $125.00
Margaret J. M. Ezell. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). Pp. ix + 182. $38.50.
GREAT Blest MASTER-PRINTER, Come / Into thy Composing-Room: / Wipe away our foul offenses; / Make, O make our Souls and Senses, / The Upper and the Lower Cases; / And thy large Alphabet of Graces / The Letter, which being ever fit, / O haste thou Distribute it: / For there is (I make Account) / No Imperfection in the Fount. / If any Letters Face be Foul, / O wash it, ere it touch the Soul; / Contrition be the Brush; the Lye, / Tears from a Penitential Eye (62).
In 1713 this verse, the first of eight stanzas, appeared at the end of James Watson's The History of the Art of Printing. Like other printers of his day, Watson believed that printing was a "mystery" in which the Creator, the "MASTER-PRINTER" revealed its secrets only to a select few. To be certain, to the uninformed laymen, sinking matrices, making ink, and typesetting letters was believed to be a labor of sorcery as those who were privy to the inner working of print shops held close to their breasts the arcane science of making books. In controlling this knowledge, Watson and others enclosed printing within a veil of mystery.
In a similar manner, so has the "History of the Book" been consigned to ambiguity. In The Kiss of Lamourette, book historian, Robert Darnton observed this when he asked: What is the History of the Book? Without sounding too esoteric, he defined it as a branch of the social sciences in which "books" are examined as artifacts. "It might even be called the social and cultural history of communication by print, if that were not such a mouthful" (107). Covering such subjects as bookbinding and papermaking, publishing and copyright, foreign letters and types, Darnton explained the history of the book investigates not only "how ideas were transmitted through print" but "how exposure to the printed word" has affected society "during the last five hundred years" (107). Darnton's efforts (and likewise others) notwithstanding, the "Book," as a field of historical inquiry, has been largely regulated by librarians, bibliographers, scholars of rare books, and young "Turks" whose histories of publishers, printers, and readership are discussed mainly in remote quarters of the humanities. To no surprise, throughout academia, many scholars continue to ask: What is the History of the Book? Into the vague corners of book history enters The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World and Social Authorship and the Advent of Print.
Rather than ask "What is the History of the Book?" The Colonial Book (which is a collection of essays edited by Hugh Amory and David D. Hall) readdressed Darnton's question by attempting to answer an equally intriguing inquiry of its own: What is the "Book"? Restricting the definition of the "Book" in the colonial world to volumes in manuscript and printed form, single-sheet broadsides, and issues of newspapers, Hall characterized them as agents of cultural [End Page 638] change in which booksellers, printers, and readers were significant actors. "Ours is a history of beginnings--of booksellers and the stores they opened, of printers using imported presses, of writers who sought in some manner to 'publish,' and of readers who, in the strange setting of the New World, welcomed such familiar texts as the almanac, the catechism, and the Bible . . ." (1). Much in the same way Elizabeth Eisenstein, Henri-Jean Martin, and other book historians liken the advent of movable type to a cosmic "Big Bang" in western development, Hall suggested that the "Book" was as a pivotal catalyst in the making of Atlantic world. To be sure, through mediums of print, western culture was transplanted from one side of the Atlantic to the...