Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 94-95
[Access article in PDF]
Form and Meaning in the History of the Book: Selected Essays. By Nicolas Barker. London: British Library, 2003. xiii, 514 pp. £50.00. ISBN 0-7123-4777-1.
Nicolas Barker is the longtime editor of the Book Collector, the former deputy keeper in charge of conservation at the British Library, and an incredibly prolific author of books and articles on all aspects of bibliology (Barker's preferred term for the study of books). Barker's interests and expertise range across the spectrum of book and library history, encompassing book production, reading, collecting, selling, and forgery. The forty essays gathered in Form and Meaning in the History of the Book are arranged in seven sections: "Books and Texts, Medieval and Later," "Typography and Early Printing," "History of the Book," "Forgery," "Books and People," "Bookselling," and "Libraries, or Who Cares about Old Books?"—a clear indication of the breadth of Barker's knowledge.
Published in honor of Barker's seventieth birthday, Form and Meaning in the History of the Book serves as an introduction to some of Barker's interests over the past forty-plus years. The essays have all been reprinted from other sources, slightly more than half (twenty-one) from the Book Collector. None have previously been reprinted. The earliest ("The Aesthetic Investor's Guide to Current Literary Values: An Essay in Bibliometry") was originally published in 1960, and the latest ("'Ireland, Where Booksellers Cannot Pretend to Any Property'") in 2001. Several essays, including "The Medieval Book," written in 1991, "In Praise of Manuscripts," written in 2000, "Books and Readers, 1475-1640," written in 1970, and "The History of the Book from Documents," written in 1977, are review essays. As such, they serve as useful introductions to a body of literature.
This volume is a nice introduction to Barker's work; it is not an introduction to the history of the book. The essays cover quite specialized topics: "Quiring and the Binder: Quire Marks in Some Manuscripts in Fifteenth-Century Blind-Stamped Bindings," "The St. Albans Press: The First Punch-cutter in England and the First Native Typefounder," and "Starling Burgess, No Type Designer," are just three examples. Most assume prior knowledge of book history and terminology. Barker makes assumptions that his readers will understand terms such as editio princeps, which, however basic they may seem to librarians, collectors, and historians, are meaningless to beginning students of the history of the book. This is hardly surprising, considering the original audience for most of the essays, but it does make the book less useful for undergraduates.
It would be impossible to discuss all or even most of the chapters in this book, but several stand out as particularly interesting. In "A Scandal in America," written in 1988, Barker pieces together Mark Hofmann's career as a forger of Mormon documents; in "Four Booksellers," written in 1983, Barker reflects on the lives and careers of four booksellers he had the privilege of knowing; and in "The Catalogue and the Card," written in 1994, Barker reacts to Nicholson Baker's famous New Yorker article on libraries' destruction of card catalogs. [End Page 94]
This is an enjoyable book that readers can consult for one or two essays on a given topic or read as a whole for Barker's perspectives on book history. Barker is an important figure in book history and possesses an impressive range of knowledge about all aspects of the subject. Form and Meaning in the History of the Book is recommended for upper-level collections on the history of the book.
University of Denver