- The History of the Book in the West: 1700–1800
This massive reference text forms the third in Ashgate's series The History of the Book in the West: A Library of Critical Essays, under general editor Alexis Weedon. The preface to the series announces its orientation succinctly: "book history focuses on empirical research into the production and dissemination of the printed word, characterized by studies of the materiality of the book" (xiii). It then broadens the scope by declaring that within such studies there exists room for methodological debate. The editor of this volume, Eleanor Shevlin, has deftly selected twenty-five previously published articles and chapters and organized them into five sections, whose titles reflect some of the shifts in the critical questions being asked in recent book history studies: "The Physical Book, or Matters Material," "Matters Authorial," "Trade Matters: Practices and Practitioners," "Periodicals and Newspapers, or Matters Serial," and "Reading and Related Matters." The essays in these sections range from classic pieces representing early days of book history, such as Philip Gaskell's 1957 "Notes on Eighteenth-Century British Paper," and Cyprian Blagden's 1959 "The Stationers' Company in the Eighteenth Century," to chapters from more recent monographs and essay collections, including a selection from James Raven's 2007 The Business of Books, "Investing in Books: The Supremacy of the Booksellers," and Wallace Kirsop's chapter "Patronage across Frontiers: Subscription Publication in French Enlightenment Europe" in Bell, Bennett, and Bevan's Across Boundaries: The Book in Culture and Commerce (2000). The "West" in this collection's title mostly encompasses Britain and America, but, [End Page 555] as this last example shows, does include interesting additional perspectives with articles on Dutch, Italian, and French publishing practices.
In her substantial introduction, Shevlin points to the fact that while little changed in terms of the printing technology between 1700 and 1800 there were important developments in the creation of a modern form of copyright, the expansion of periodical publication and marketing practices, and the increasing prominence of the bookseller or publisher as a key figure in the book trade as it expanded its markets across Europe. She also ties in the larger social trend in the eighteenth century toward the cultivation of "taste" that "encouraged the refinement and perfection of type, paper, illustrations and binding while simultaneously fostering reader appreciation for such improvement" (xix). Likewise, the eighteenth century has been identified with the beginnings of copyright and our modern concept of authorship, both again tied to "shifting economic, political, social, cultural and commercial conditions" across Europe as a whole (xxvi). The commercialization of print texts, which "took place alongside long-established authorial practice including the continued use of manuscript publication and the endurance of patronage," nevertheless fostered the rise of what Shevlin terms the "proto-professional writer" (xxxiii, xxxiv); the confluence of old and new practices draws our attention to the need for further studies considering anonymous publication and the role played by paratextual materials in thinking about authorial practices during this century.
To review each of the pieces in this volume would be redundant, as all of them have been published before, sometimes decades ago, and all are by established scholars—in short, there is nothing "new" in this volume compared to a thematically conceptualized collection of solicited essays. The contents of the volume are even presented in facsimile form, and thus one has an entertaining overview of changing tastes in the material nature of scholarly publication, from the elegant ease, wide margins, and large font of Giles Barber's 1975 piece from The Book Collector, "Continental Paper Wrappers and Publishers' Bindings in the 18th Century," to the current day's small and chiseled font of Joost Kloek and Wijnand Mijnhardt's important 2004 overview of the institutions involved in the expansion of European literacy and book production, "The Printed Word" from Dutch Culture in a European Perspective. What this volume does do well is to bring these foundational texts together in a fresh and interesting context, illustrating...