- Neither History nor Book
A central paradox of the history of the book is that it is neither simply a subfield of history nor concerned only with books. To study the history of the book is to examine the codex as one among myriad textual technologies. The “book” is in this sense a placeholder for a broader concern with the materiality of text and reading. “History” too is a placeholder. At stake in contemporary accounts of the book and its history is a vision of how and what to read in the present and the future. These questions moreover occupy literary critics, anthropologists, economists, politicians, media studies scholars, and bookish students and teachers at all levels, in addition to professional historians. Its name notwithstanding, the history of the book is interdisciplinary and forward-looking. In its most robust conceptualization, it is a debate about the humanities themselves.
Despite an emphasis on particular artifacts in their unique spaces and times, a trans-historical wager nevertheless undergirds research in the history of the book. The hope is that those who mine digital corpora or theorize electronic reading and those who investigate medieval manuscript culture or early printed pamphlets—to take just a few among many possible examples—might learn from each other’s approaches to textual presence. This study of the materiality of text in its multiple manifestations has paradoxically revealed the fact that across diverse media and at varied moments the histories of books echo each other. There are patterns that characterize a book’s lifecycle—its “communications circuit,” as some scholars call it. Like formal parallels among otherwise dissimilar artifacts or the shared ambitions and anxieties that characterize revolutions in textual technologies, these patterns become visible only by balancing a focus on particular artifacts and archives with a broader historical consciousness.
The history of the book lures its practitioners outside their disciplinary homes as well as beyond their periods of specialization. Acceptance that the material qualities of the book and the meaning of the text shape each other occasions entry into the chemistry of ink and paper, techniques of sewing and sculpture, and families of computational as well as Romance or other languages. The production, acquisition, display, defacement, recycling, selection, exchange, preservation, and piracy of textual artifacts together establish the conditions for interpretation. In their theorization and examination of the lives of such multifaceted artifacts, book historians have deployed the research practices and [End Page 1] genetic editing techniques traditionally associated with philology. Characterized by an attention to variation among multiple manuscript copies or printed editions of a single text, as well as an acute sense for how languages change over time, this philological approach does not demarcate the methodological limit of book history any more than the codex delimits the book historian’s object of study, however. So long as they seek mutual intelligibility, scholars employing diverse methodologies have found homes in the history of the book.
The key to cultivating this mutual intelligibility is to train an analytical eye on the poem or the play even while reconstructing the workings of the printer or the playhouse, which are themselves comprehensible only as part of social, political, and even environmental ecosystems. Distinct communities of historians of the book, traditionally focused on some subset of this hierarchy of research concerns, increasingly investigate each other’s archives. They do so in order to pose new questions of the archives they already know, to mine unfamiliar archives in new ways, and to develop a more subtle account of the history of archival practice in the various ages of information overload that have preceded our own. Contemporary scholarship on the history of the book is in this regard central to ongoing debates about the humanities not simply because all humanities disciplines are concerned to some degree with books, imagined in their most expansive sense. Such scholarship is central also because the interwoven textual and material elements of books render their examination a necessarily interdisciplinary project drawing on a multiplicity of archives. The history of the book exemplifies the broader trend in humanistic inquiry toward dialogue, if not collaboration across disciplines.
Given this relationship between the history of the book and the...