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Book History 5 (2002) 263-274

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Quantitative Method, Literary History

Priya Joshi


Amassing statistics is sometimes regarded in the academy as viewing Internet pornography has been in this prurient age: an indulgence than can only be permitted—and enjoyed—in solitude. Robert Darnton's essay, "Book Production in British India, 1850-1900," takes the particular indulgence of some book historians and makes it thoroughly enjoyable, widely beyond the preoccupations of the initiate. Not only is his attempt to document the proliferation of print in India in the second half of the nineteenth century a major archival achievement; the account of vistas opened by quantitative methods is a particularly inspiring one. Darnton is right early in the essay to caution the use of statistics; he is equally right, however, to charge ahead as he does. As he notes, "[H]owever flawed or distorted, the statistics provided enough material for book historians to construct a general picture of literary culture, something comparable to the early maps of the New World, which showed the contours of the continents, even though they did not correspond very well to the actual landscape" ("Book Production," 240). [End Page 263]

The analogy with maps is a cogent one and made advisedly: quantitative methods expand literary history and make all sorts of discoveries possible, much the way that early maps did in the dissemination of knowledge about "new" worlds. Statistics, like maps, are indeed lies to some extent, but—to borrow Claire Connolly's keen formulation—they are the lies that tell a truth that would not otherwise be evident. One can only hope that literary studies, which has for so long regarded quantitative analysis with suspicion bordering on contempt, will come to be persuaded by Darnton's evidence that quantitative data allow a general picture of a literary culture to emerge that might otherwise be obscured by more conventional qualitative methods of textual analysis. Certainly "Book Production in British India" (and the companion piece published last year in Book History) should go a long way toward winning the quantitative methods of book history sympathy among many who remain hostile to them.

Yet it is wise to be cautious about the distortions and shortcomings of statistical research, particularly when the origins and sources of that data are difficult to verify or to retrace. This is especially the case with the material preserved in the vast and generally understudied archives of print associated with the British Empire in India. Partly because the abstract, production-based paradigms of postcolonial theory have so marked the study of empire, it is only relatively recently that scholars have begun to turn their attention to what these archives might yield. Darnton's essay participates in the effort to plot a social narrative of print during the height of the British Raj and to understand the relevance of Indian print production to Enlightenment categories of public culture such as censorship. Eventually, his findings may help other scholars interested in Indian agency to determine patterns of consumption from the archives of print production and circulation. The broad book statistics that Darnton records by category, in aggregate, and in comparison with figures from Britain, France, and Germany for the years 1875 and 1900 could become a starting point for subsequent inquiry. However, as he warns, these figures are themselves quite evidently flawed and inconsistent even within the very capacious archive that contains them.

Starting in 1867, the colonial bureaucracy, "stuck in overdrive" as Darnton dryly puts it, produced a quarterly list of every title published in British India. The lists were variously entitled Appendices to the Gazettes or Catalogues, and they came to be used extensively by librarians at the British Museum and the India Office for book accessions in London. Perusing the catalogues at the British Library today, one still encounters librarians' marginalia penciled in next to titles that had been or were to be purchased. But the catalogues presented more than just the names of books and serials: they also included information on purchasing price, print runs, publishers, [End Page 264] number of pages, and putative summaries, some brief, some quite...


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