- A Companion to the History of the Book
The year 2008 could justly be reckoned the fiftieth birthday of the history of the book as a field of academic research. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s L’Apparition du livre, originally published in 1958, is conventionally [End Page 782] seen as marking its initial emergence. It has since grown into a sizable enterprise, attended with all the paraphernalia of a successful discipline in the making: journals, societies, international conferences, graduate and undergraduate programs, monumental book series, and so on. And historians of the book like to justify this success in terms of ambitious claims for the field’s significance—claims about the primacy of writing, printing, and reading practices in shaping human cultures. If you want to understand how cultures come into being, endure, and change, they imply, then you need to come to terms with the rich and often surprising history of the book.
That proposition ought to appeal to historians of technology more than it has. Not only has printing been among the most important technologies ever invented, after all, but its history poses very forcibly many of the perennial questions confronting historians of technology in general. So too with the book itself, considered as a tool for cultural stability and change. And when scholars struggle with processes of technology transfer and the acquisition and replication of skills, they are tackling phenomena of transmission, and historians of the book see transmission as one of their central topics. Yet in practice the two enterprises have kept each other at arm’s length, the one perhaps affecting to sniff antiquarianism, the other fearing determinists. This is the kind of situation in which a single-volume introduction to a field can have a real impact. The moment is right, therefore, for historians of technology in particular to take a look at Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose’s A Companion to the History of the Book.
Eliot and Rose have done a fine job. Their volume can be heartily recommended as the best available starting point for any historian interested in learning about this enterprise. A major reason for this is that they take the term book in a broad sense to include not only codex volumes and scrolls, but also periodicals, ephemera, and even ancient Babylonian clay tablets. The forty chapters they have corralled together add up to a composite history of the making, nature, distribution, and use of these objects, extending from the invention of writing in what is now Iraq in the late fourth millennium bce to the current digital revolution. (The book is up-to-date enough to include developments as late as 2006.) Some of the chapters are more catalog-like than others. Yet many not only serve their turn as elements in the long chronology, but they also introduce more specialist literatures —in medieval studies, for example—that furnish fascinating issues of their own. Particularly striking are those chapters which deal with relatively unfamiliar topics: Eleanor Robson’s on the clay tablet in ancient Assyria, for example, or Rowan Watson’s on the “non-textual” uses of books. Overall the quality is admirably high, and all can be taken as reliable first guides to their topics.
As mention of Watson’s chapter perhaps implies, the Companion does not restrict itself to chronicling the development of the book itself. It also devotes attention to regimes of regulation and jurisdiction—censorship, [End Page 783] intellectual property, and the like—and to systems of storage and taxonomy: libraries and bibliography. And it opens with a section of four chapters on methods and approaches in the historiography of the book.
A volume covering such a long time-span—the entirety of human history, really—ought to provide an opportunity to articulate some large perceptions. In this case, three stand out. The first is simply how broad and deep the field has indeed become. Febvre and Martin took “the book” to be the codex, and especially the printed codex. Now the concept extends...