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  • The State of the Discipline: Booksellers and Their Customers: Some Reflections on Recent Research
  • Wallace Kirsop (bio)

There was a time a generation ago when it was just feasible to attempt in one article an overall review of the research on book history stimulated by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s L’Apparition du livre (Paris: Albin Michel, 1958). A number of people did try their hands at this exercise in the 1970s: Robert Darnton, “Reading, Writing, and Publishing in Eighteenth-Century France: A Case Study in the Sociology of Literature,” Daedalus 100 (1970–71): 214–56; Roger Chartier and Daniel Roche, “Le livre: un changement de perspective,” in Faire de l’histoire, vol. 3, Nouveaux objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), 115–36; Raymond Birn, “Livre et société After Ten Years: Formation of a Discipline,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 151.1 (1976): 287–312; Roger Chartier and Daniel Roche, “L’histoire quantitative du livre,” Revue franÀ’Àaise d’histoire du livre, no. 16 (July–September 1977): 477–501; Wallace Kirsop, “Literary History and Book Trade History: The Lessons of L’Apparition du livre,” Australian Journal of French Studies 16 (1979): 488–535; John Feather, “Cross-Channel Currents: Historical Bibliography and l’histoire du livre,” The Library, 6th ser., 2 (1980): 1–15. Even then, as in the special issue of the Revue franÀ’Àaise d’histoire du livre on “Aspects de l’histoire du livre ancien,” edited [End Page 283] by Roger Chartier in July–September 1977, it was clear that collaborative volumes were required to do justice to the growing mass of detailed investigations and bold syntheses. That much of this work still emanated from earlier traditions of scholarship, which should under no circumstances be disparaged as “antiquarian,” was a further complication. Now, in the late 1990s, the case for devoting whole books to setting out the state of the discipline seems unanswerable. This was indeed the solution adopted in the first two volumes in the “In Octavo” series, drawing largely on colloquia held in Göttingen and Paris in 1990 and 1993, respectively: Hans Erich Bödeker, ed., Histoires du livre: nouvelles orientations (Paris: IMEC Éditions/Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1995); Roger Chartier, ed., Histoires de la lecture: un bilan des recherches (Paris: IMEC Éditions/Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1995).

In one article, therefore, it is hardly possible to treat more than a single sector of the disciplinary field, and then only in a selective manner. Inevitably the choice of a theme—in this instance bookselling—is dictated above all by personal preoccupations. However, distribution is so demonstrably central to the business of taking texts from authors to readers that it deserves to be given the prominence that it appears to be regaining after a period of eclipse. At the same time, it would be dangerous to ignore the ways in which the three principal aspects of the subject commonly identified by historians—production, distribution, and reception or reading—are interconnected. The tripartite division is convenient in practice for organizing and structuring ambitious cooperative efforts like the three-volume chronological History of the Book in Australia, due to appear at the beginning of the new millennium, but it should not create artificial and arbitrary barriers to research across the range. This is at least implicitly recognized in such different articles as Martyn Lyons, “Texts, Books, and Readers: Which Kind of Cultural History?” Australian Cultural History 11 (1992): 1–15 (the introduction to a special number on “Books, Readers, Reading” in an Australian context), and Robert Darnton, “Histoire du Livre. Geschichte des Buchwesens. An Agenda for Comparative History,” Publishing History 22 (1987): 33–41, later reprinted in Hans Erich Bödeker, ed., Histoires du livre: nouvelles orientations, 451–58.

The general context is, of course, firmly in view in those studies that have endeavored to provide a diagrammatic model of the book industry in the broadest sense: Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of the Book?” Daedalus 111 (1982): 65–83, later reprinted in a number of places, notably R. Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990...

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