- The Book History Reader
This anthology will be very welcome to those who teach book history courses. Since the key articles of this relatively new field are scattered throughout the learned journals of several disciplines and found in a variety of edited volumes and monographs, the existence of this volume will make the lives of both students and teachers immensely easier. Sadly, Adams's and Barker's response to Darnton's "communications circuit" is not included (it was unavailable for reprinting), but all the other obvious suspects are there: Darnton, Chartier, McKenzie, Ong, Bourdieu, Eisenstein, Foucault, Brewer, Sutherland, Iser, Altick, Fish, and a dozen more.
The collection is organized into four sections: "What Is Book History?" "From Orality to Literacy," "Commodifying Print: Books and Authors," and "Books and Readers." There is an editors' introduction to the volume and a very short introduction to each section, while at the end of the volume there is a bibliography that directs students' further reading most effectively. The section introductions offer the barest sketch of how the selected essays relate to each other and will, perhaps intentionally, be no help to lazy students hoping to get away without really reading the articles. (I would also have liked the original publication dates of the essays to be made more obvious to students, who are unlikely to read the acknowledgments section in detail.) The main introduction is longer, though, to my mind, still too short. It offers an overview of the development of the discipline out of analytical bibliography and social history, which is intriguing but hints at more that remains to be said. The editors offer no explanation or justification for their organization of the volume, which is not, for instance, organized by what they identify (briefly) as three crucial revolutions: the transitions from oral to literate culture, from written to printed texts, and from printed to electronic texts. The four sections they do [End Page 576] select are not quite the four I would have chosen, and I can think of plenty of other possibilities, so some editorial musings on the question of the key themes in book history would have been welcome.
It was the devotion of a section to orality and literacy that made me ponder these organizational issues. I'm well aware that this is a topic that has caused much discussion (and if I were not, the length of the bibliography for this section makes it clear), yet the essays collected here all focus on the contrast between an oral culture and a literate culture. There is nothing about orality within a literate culture or about different sorts of literate cultures. There has, after all, also been a great deal written about the decline (or not) of the social activity of reading aloud and about the existence (or not) of a revolution from intensive to extensive reading. My own book history courses focus on the period from the eighteenth century onward, and I was disappointed to find so little my students could use in this section.
Yet for me the most intriguing—and disappointing—aspect of this volume was its general tendency to think of books as texts rather than material objects. Although the editors claim in their introduction that "the significance of the book as a physical object" is one of the issues forming "part of the substance of this Reader" (1), they are also enamored by the concept of unstable, interacting texts (3), and most of their selected essays engage more with the production and consumption of texts than of books. This is certainly an increasing area of interest in these days of immaterial, electronic texts, but one of the most exciting aspects of book history for me is precisely the focus on books. Where were the essays discussing the material form of the book, investigating the significance of innovations in printing or paper-making technologies or the importance of edition bindings for creating a ready-to-read product? Equally, where...