- Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture
Leslie Howsam begins Old Books and New Histories with a remark that she ascribes to a student: '[T]he book is a shape shifter.' The 'book' is the codices that we would call 'books,' but it is also 'non-book' – clay tablets, musical scores, scrolls, and computer imagery. The book is changing in that it is contingent upon the moment and processes of its production and then its reception over time. But most importantly to Howsam, the book is a moving, manoeuvred thing because it is 'unfamiliarly abstract.' Hers is not a study of books, per se: it is a study of several decades of scholarly scrutiny of books, an 'orientation' to the unfamiliar, shifting 'book' that has resulted from that work.
Jean Howard has written elsewhere that a discipline such as book history reaches maturity when it no longer needs to explain itself to outsiders. This is not yet the case with what Howsam entitles 'studies in book and print culture.' The field, she argues in her first chapter, has 'disciplinary boundaries' and presents 'interdisciplinary opportunities,' but these are unsettled. Book history has the shape of the French-Annalist historians Henri-Jean Martin and Lucian Febvre's histoire du livre; Marshall McLuhan's account of 'print culture'; Robert Darnton's answer to the question, what is the history of the book?; and [End Page 190] D.F. McKenzie's redefinition of 'bibliography' as the 'sociology of the text.' It is routinely redefined and reassessed in more recent discussions – from articles like Howard's on the study of the book by American historians, to the introductions to the new Routledge and Blackwell's student readers in book history. Howsam undoes and examines the sometimes self-congratulatory nature of such discussions. Darnton says that the answer to his question – what is book history? – is 'interdisciplinarity run riot'; Howsam finds the riot less celebration than a contest, and the energy of book history not in well-disciplined study but in ruptures and productive discord.
The second chapter of Old Books and New Histories is concerned with the riot's ringleaders: the separate disciplines of literary studies, history, and bibliography. 'Literary studies' is interested in the history of books because its orientation has lately been with historical questions – texts 'as ways of understanding the human condition' and literature's meaning in its 'cultural context.' In parallel are the 'broad humanistic dimensions' of historical studies – the rise of social and cultural history. Books are a point of interest in both fields because they bear texts, and so present the past, in forms given to them and then encountered by people. A more detailed account of what is different about Howsam's third bookish discipline, bibliography, might have been helpful at this stage. Bibliographers do not inhabit their own funded, institutional, or curricular space: they and their courses may be found in the context of information and library studies, but they are no more independent there than when buried in other departments. Some of the trends detectable in 'book history' result: concern with electronic texts has much to do with the concerns of information science; the 'humanistic' drift of much work on books is no surprise when its most famous practitioners hold professorships in history (Darnton) or English (McKenzie).
But if I wanted more discussion along these lines, it was only because Howsam points us in such directions routinely, and in extremely stimulating ways. Old Books and New Histories demands that readers think about the questions Howsam raises by does not finally answer. Her third chapter deals with competing historiographical schools. It starts with Darnton's 'communications circuit' – 'his book is as much an abstraction standing for those mediated relationships as it is a physical artefact'; directs us to Nicolas Barker and Thomas R. Adams's and others' rejection of the model as one that makes bibliography 'handmaiden' to an oversimplified idea of the place of a book in history; and ends with...