- The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, & America
Richard B. Sher summarizes his book as “a study of the architecture of book culture” (597). Yet the metaphor too modestly describes his considerable achievement. Sher explores his subject brick by brick, surveying both the creation and disintegration of an influential era of bookmaking and the transmission of ideas beginning in “Auld Reekie” during the mid-eighteenth century and ending approximately fifty years later in the New World. In the process he reconnects “publishers and the conditions of publication with authors and their books,” relationships that he maintains have traditionally been neglected in the study of eighteenth-century book history and bibliography (266). He also provides a thorough accounting of the publishing and reprinting of texts published during the Enlightenment by Scottish authors, including Hume’s Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding(1748), Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments(1759), Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker(1771), and Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.(1791).
Central to Sher’s examination is the idea that these writers, in collaboration with their publishers, promoted both the intellectual progress of the age as well as the lucrative possibilities of authorship; as the learned and literary stores of [End Page 238]Western knowledge expanded, writers’ bank accounts grew. Unprecedented collaborations between Edinburgh and London publishers contributed to this general improvement of intellectual and financial capital in Britain and created an enthusiastic market for Scottish works on the Continent and elsewhere. Industrious Dublin-based publishers immediately—and often illegally— reprinted Scottish titles to meet this demand, consequently becoming the “hinge on which the Atlantic dissemination of Enlightenment books turned” (502). From the ports of Dublin the ideas of enlightened Scotland were shipped to American shores.
In addition to chronicling this dynamic symbiosis between Enlightenment authors and publishers and their consumers, Sher seeks to redress persistent shortcomings in Enlightenment scholarship, especially in the twentieth century. The author convincingly argues that anti-Enlightenment thought is historically reductive and frustratingly selective in its critique. Consequently, claims advanced to impugn or indict the influence of Enlightenment ideas on modern and post-modern thought and tragic historical events are usually rooted in readings of the era focused on one or two figures and their work and on the attendant assumption that their views represent the totality of intellectual effort promoted, debated, and accepted during the age. In contrast, Sher advocates that “the Enlightenment should be viewed as a very big movement, requiring correspondingly broad conceptualization, geographically, intellectually, and socially” (15). He admirably fulfills this proposal not only by outlining the collaborative relationships between publishers and authors but also by following the trajectories of working arrangements rooted in the tensions between creative endeavor and commercial reward. At several points Sher’s book reads like a tragedy, with all those involved in the bookmaker’s trade—authors, publishers, and readers alike—variously compromised, exploited, or otherwise disillusioned.
The excellent illustrations and appendixes Sher uses to support his narrative provide valuable context for the author’s arguments regarding ways publishers and authors sought to market books to readers. Particularly telling are Sher’s side-by-side examples of author portraits, which illustrate how images of authors changed depending on their intended use (usually as frontispieces) by different publishers and the technology used to create and reproduce them. In some instances authors’ likenesses were as susceptible to substandard reproduction and piracy as their books, with the potential result that their works were further compromised by the market. Sher’s discussion of frontispiece art techniques and devices is generally illuminating, and it underscores the notion that Enlightenment authors and publishers were compelled to sell personalities as well as copy. He also includes several reproductions of title pages and publishers’ announcements appearing in Scottish Enlightenment texts published in America to show how emigrant publishers marketed these books to colonial audiences.
Sher’s appendixes are valuable scholarly sources...