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Reviewed by:
  • The Book in the Renaissance
  • Sara Brooks
The Book in the Renaissance. By Andrew Pettegree (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010) 421 pp. $40.00

Pettegree's study offers a vivid introduction to current trends in the history of the book. It treads a careful line allowing for popular accessibility while not discounting academic readership. The book's success in these aims makes it valuable for scholars across disciplines who wish to acquaint themselves with the history of the book (as thing) in the first centuries of print.

Pettegree synthesizes the history of the book as a commodity. Placing trade in books at the heart of his approach marks a generational succession from Elizabeth Eisenstein's focus on the printing press in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (New York, 1979) and continues recent use of material bibliography as a servant of a wider book-history project. With this distance from explanations based on technological agency, the foundations of the printed industry in manuscript book trade receive fuller attention than has often been the case. Pettegree's own projects, a short-title catalog for early French books leading to development of a universal short-title catalog, lend the book its most distinct elements. This account of the early stages of the printed-book industry brings a Europe-wide geography of impressive scope to the fore.

Just as succeeding geographies of trade reflect his interests, Pettegree [End Page 282] hones in on the Reformation to explain much of the transformation in the European book market. He treats fifteenth-century trade as robustly experimental but nevertheless discovers lucrative genres of text only gradually. Falling like a bomb on an industry that was only just achieving some kind of profitable state during the first years of the new century, the Reformation transformed the early modern book trade in scale and geography, sealing producers' perceptions of profit centers for an extended period thereafter. Unlike Desiderius Erasmus, who perceptively exploited existing markets, the changes that followed on the heels of Martin Luther married printers' realizations of the more reliable profitability of cheap and popular works to a customer base that, Pettegree underlines, grew during these tumultuous decades.

Where book censuses and the Reformation flag, Pettegree's account meets some limits. Despite its strong account of the book trade in Western Europe during the decades before the introduction of the press, it offers less than might have been anticipated about the resilience of manuscripts during the print era. The extremely brief treatment of Ottoman and Russian lands is just enough to leave the impression that the continuing dominance of manuscript book production in these areas showed some deficiency (265). This notion seems at variance with Pettegree's treatment of the Western medieval trade in books. Further, he pays relatively scant attention to concepts like information societies and the public sphere, both of which carry sufficient maturity in academic circles to appeal to the kind of mixed market that this book aims to find.

As a work of synthesis, Pettegree depends on his mastery of the scholarship, combined with recent short-title efforts. Given its concentration on markets, Pettegree's economics appear largely in costings to illustrate print-run scales and in distribution areas. Reading plays less of a role than might be suspected by the term Renaissance in the title. Pettegree's study reflects the mixed success of scholarship attempting to reconstruct the experience of the ordinary reader. Ironically, even with his vivid, accessible examples of popular texts and their trade, Pettegree concentrates on learned texts in his discussion of reading. The natural historical and medical texts that he uses benefit from articulate annotation and illustration. Though these texts work well as demonstrations of achievements based on scholarly study, this departure from his account of the popular trade testifies to a continuing difficulty in the scholarship. Thus, where it is most engaging, The Book in the Renaissance is far more about books than about texts. It reflects a continuing struggle to account for people as imaginative readers rather than as simply consumers. [End Page 283]

Sara Brooks
Princeton University

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 282-283
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-06
Open Access
No
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