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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 155-156
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David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, eds., The Book History Reader (London: Routledge, 2002), 390 pp.
The growth of what has come to be called "book history" or "history of the book" is one of the notable phenomena of historical study in the past quarter century or so. Its emphases on the place of books in culture, on the reception and readership of books, and on the social role of publishers are welcome developments. But they have been accompanied by an unfortunate side effect—a lessened interest in studying the details of book production. The focus on the postpublication life of books is partly responsible, but another factor is the association of analytical bibliography with intentionalist editing (simply because many of the twentieth-century advances in bibliographical analysis were made by scholars who wished to establish intended texts). Examining books for physical clues to their production history, however, need not have as its goal the construction of an authorially intended text; and the prepublication history of every book is obviously part of its full story. Yet at a time when literary theory has viewed texts as socially constructed, rather than as the products of individuals, it is not surprising that book historians would favor the study of books in society. The value of such work is self-evident and need not be promoted at the expense of previous approaches; but many of the advocates of the new style of book history have felt the need to question the validity of analytical bibliography and the pursuit of authorial intention.
Into this milieu has now come The Book History Reader, intended as a one-volume introduction to the field, clearly with an eye to classroom use. Such an anthology could have had a considerable usefulness; but this particular one will seriously mislead its readers, for the editors are content to repeat and support the clichés about the superiority of the new book history over the so-called Anglo-American tradition of production history (incorrectly portrayed). The bias of the volume is epitomized by the second sentence of the editors' introduction to the first section: they state that analytical bibliography as practiced by R. B. McKerrow, W. W. Greg, and Fredson Bowers is "still utilized today to a certain extent in courses on bibliographic methods." The implication (an inaccurate one) is that the tradition is dead, except as it lingers in certain courses (which must themselves be of doubtful value). If the editors had thought independently about the matter, they would have seen that the analysis of the physical evidence in books can never be outmoded because that evidence is primary evidence (just as artifactual evidence is central to all other fields that deal with artifacts). They would further have understood that this evidence is basic both to [End Page 155] production history and to reception history—which, indeed, are so interconnected that one cannot separate the latter from the former. If the editors had recognized these points, they would have included writings by—for example—Stanley Morison, Paul Needham, and David Vander Meulen. But instead they chose to reinforce the fashionable view, and bibliographical analysis of the kind found in these writers' work is accorded no place. Nor is the beginning student given any help in identifying the distortions present in some of the essays that are included, such as D. F. McKenzie's quoting of Greg out of context.
Another problem is that some of the selections make no connection with the physical characteristics of books. For example, the excerpt from an essay by Stanley Fish (a number of the pieces are indeed excerpts, some with internal ellipses) is a typical example of his approach to the role of readers in creating meaning. He does not discuss the ways in which readers' responses are affected by the typography, layout, paper, and other design features of the books they read; rather, he talks about readers' "interpretive strategies" for dealing with "texts," and it is incidental that those texts frequently happen to be encountered in printed books. The...