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Book History 5 (2002) 283-293

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Very Necessary but Not Quite Sufficient:
A Personal View of Quantitative Analysis in Book History

Simon Eliot

            On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe.

—John Donne, Satyre III

Accounting for the Material Text

Before one says anything else about book history, one should remind readers and practitioners alike that the subject is rooted in the material world. Textual or iconographic information is produced, processed, transmitted, received, and preserved by a series of physical acts on material objects within the real world. The writer's cramp, the aching back of the scribe, the stench from parchment being prepared, the creaking frame of the common press, the weight and yet fragility of type, the roar and racket of newspaper presses, the clatter of Monotype casters, the damp solidity of printed sheets, the glazed garishness of yellowbacks and pulp fiction, the extravagant juxtapositions in encrusted layers of fly posters on unattended walls—all tell us of one thing above all others: meaning and significance in human affairs is not conveyed with immaculate and abstract precision from writer to reader. What it also tells us is that this material world is characterized in part, and therefore is to be understood in part, by countable quantities: reams of paper, tons of type, print runs, and percentage returns on capital. [End Page 283]

This recognition is not new. Anglophone book history is based solidly on the great Anglo-American tradition of bibliography, and an important part of that is historical and enumerative bibliography. It was the commitment of scholars in the last century to enumerative bibliography that produced the sequence of short title catalogues (STCs)—eventually to run from the Incunable Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) to the Nineteenth Century Short Title Catalogue (NSTC)—on which some of the most important work on the quantitative history of the book in Britain has been done. Although the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide overwhelmingly more quantifiable data than any other period, bibliometric work on the STCs have ensured that, for instance, we now have a clear idea of the origins and nature of the printed books imported into England and Scotland in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, 1 and of annual book production in England, Scotland, and Ireland between 1475 and 1700. 2 It is significant that, in the early 1990s, all four postdoctoral fellowships established to support the "History of the Book in Britain" project and funded by the Leverhulme Trust were in the areas of quantitative book history. 3

In book history the "case study" approach is interesting and important but, on its own, is not enough. We certainly have to look at specifics: we need to study particular titles, demanding authors, ingenious publishers, depressive booksellers, and perverse readers. Without such studies we would miss the texture and taste of bookmaking humanity. However, such studies, though necessary, are not sufficient. Any number of individual studies would not be sufficient, because you could never be certain that you had assembled a reliable sample that did justice at large to the particular period or area that you were studying. Also, the individual studies need a context to confer on their details a proper significance. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago I was working on a now wholly obscure novelist and popular historian called Walter Besant. In the late nineteenth century, however, Besant was a great success, a well-known and feted man of letters who would be approached by popular journalists of the day for his views on such matters as who should be the next poet laureate or the significance of the "New Woman." Above all, in terms of his value to posterity, Besant founded and helped run the first successful organization for writers in the United Kingdom, the Society of Authors. I was working on the archives of Chatto & Windus, Besant's main publisher, and was pulling out what I thought were interesting details. In the 1880s...


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