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  • Old Books & New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture
  • Kate Eichhorn
Old Books & New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture. By Leslie Howsam . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. 111 pp. $16.95 (paper). ISBN 0-8020-9438-4.

Leslie Howsam's Old Books & New Histories fulfills the promise of its subtitle by providing readers with a map to navigate the emerging field of book history. It is important to emphasize that Howsam's book is an orientation, not an introduction, to book history. Rather than introduce key concepts or subjects of investigation in book history, this book represents one historian's attempt to trace the development and current status of an eclectic and rapidly expanding interdisciplinary field. For this reason, Old Books & New Histories will primarily be of interest to researchers and librarians who already have had occasion to question the parameters of book history and their place within it.

Old Books & New Histories is, in part, a product of the author's attempt to orient her own research. Early in her career Howsam discovered that despite the significant contribution historians had made to the study of the book, book history was not recognized as a subspecialty in history programs, nor did it exist as a separate field. In the past two decades much has changed. Book history is now a recognized subspecialty in many history and English programs and exists as a stand-alone degree program at the undergraduate and graduate levels. This recognition does not diminish the need to map the field.

Since the early 1980s, when book history began to take as a field of study distinct from bibliography, there have been several attempts to orient the field. In chapter 3 Howsam provides a synopsis of four key essays by Robert Darton, Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker, Peter D. McDonald, and James A. Secord that situate book history on the disciplinary terrain. However, in contrast to most of these endeavors, which were launched from specific disciplinary standpoints (e.g., McDonald's essay represents a critique from literary studies, and Secord's essay considers book history in relation to the history of science), Howsam's orientation attempts to locate book history in relation to what she identifies as the three core disciplines that inform historical studies of the book: literary studies, bibliography, and history.

While chapter 1 serves as an introduction to Howsam's self-described "field-guide" to book history and offers a brief introduction to the study of books in literary studies, bibliography, and history, chapter 2 explores where and how these fields overlap in book history. Howsam's main point is that "different disciplines ask not only different questions, but different kinds of questions" and that where disciplines converge, the results are bound to be both contentious and enlightening (27). By chapter 4 Howsam's own disciplinary allegiances begin to take hold. "Where Is the Book in History" is primarily concerned with the status of book studies in Howsam's [End Page 342] own disciplinary home. Whether or not the reader is a historian, this chapter shouldbe considered central reading. This is the only point at which Howsam pays serious attention to the methodological and theoretical traditions that have arguably contributed most significantly to book history's interdisciplinary status: the French tradition of l'histoire du livre, which emerged out of the Annales school of historical research and practice, and the Canadian tradition of media studies, most often linked to the work of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and the Toronto School of Communications.

Although Howsam appears sincere in her attempt to provide a guide to the interdisciplinary field of book history, at times one is left with the impression that this historian ultimately wishes to contain the field. Howsam recognizes the influence of the Annales tradition of social history, which explicitly incorporates sociological methodologies into the study of history, but she locates the roots of book history firmly in the humanities. Her construction of book history as a field firmly rooted in the humanities is misleading when tracing its development not only on an international level but also within North America. Janice Radway...


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