- Writing as Material Practice: Substance, Surface and Medium ed. by Kathryn E. Piquette and Ruth D. Woodhouse, and: A Lakota War Book from the Little Big Horn: The Pictographic Autobiography of Half Moon ed. by Castle McLaughlin
Over the past few decades there has developed a synthesizing ‘history of the book’ based in traditional disciplines like bibliography and narrative social and technological history, with palaeography and diplomatics hovering in the background. I say background, because so far book history’s primary focus has not been on manuscripts (Greg and McKerrow disagreed sharply on whether bibliography should even treat them) but on print culture, with a strong emphasis on material production, the book trade, textual criticism, reading, and latterly the digital turn. Looking to the book’s origins, the tendency has been to locate them in the clay tablets of Mesopotamia. As Andrew Robinson wrote in The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010): ‘Some time in the late 4th millennium bc, in the cities of Sumer in Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization”, the complexity of trade and administration reached a point where it outstripped the power of memory among the governing elite. To record transactions in an indisputable, permanent form became essential.’ In this interpretation, two features are essential to the book as an artefact: its content, as represented by the infant technology of writing, and its permanence, as represented in Mesopotamia by the baked clay tablets remaining in the archaeological record.
A scientist or economist, if asked, might mischievously term this the ‘Standard Model’ of book studies, characterized by inscription, a stable substrate, and a particular set of historical conditions. A further feature of the model, notwithstanding resistance on differing grounds from linguist Roy Harris, psychologist David Olson, and classicist Barry Powell, asserts that ‘full writing’ is phonetic, that there is a fundamental relationship between inscribed alphabetic letters and their pronunciation. Finally, the narrative of the Standard Model is one of steady progress, using phonetic writing, towards ever-improved media: from clay tablets, to papyrus rolls, to the codex, to the technological supremacy of print. This triumphalism may be why the digital turn has come as such a shock both to lovers of the book and sensation-seeking journalists: surely it cannot be that, in the bitter words of the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler: [the book is] ‘an information technology whose monopoly is now coming to an end’?
Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, different scholars are addressing themselves to the physical and cognitive conditions in which the earliest writing was imposed on substrates, as well as those of later non-alphabetic inscriptions outside Europe. They are archaeologists, anthropologists, epigraphers, and materials [End Page 195] scientists, with a hands-on knowledge of tools, substrates, the sheer multiplicity of human scripts and languages, and the problems that accompany that profusion. There is not a bibliographer or book historian among them, nor are their names—John Baines, Frank Salomon, John Bennet, Elizabeth Hill Boone, Stephen Houston, Kathryn Piquette, Lambros Malafouris—much seen, if at all, in the pages of the usual bibliographical journals. Yet their work is driving a nail into the coffin of the Standard Model. If we were to fully absorb the evidence and arguments of the two books under review here, it would no longer be easy to say that the history of the book ‘begins’ with cuneiform tablets, that there is such a thing as ‘full’ writing, that phonetic writing and the book are inextricably connected, that their history is one of progress towards a confident maturity, or even that the death of the book has arrived...