New page in old story

The Book History Reader
November 1, 2002

In Kaunas, the old capital of Lithuania, not far from the geographical centre of the continent of Europe, stands the statue of the Book Smuggler. It is a commemoration of those who risked their lives to bring printed works in Lithuanian and in Latin script to a people being subjected to a ruthless programme of Russification by the tsarist regimes of the late 19th century. The book smuggler is an ambivalent figure, driven as he was by a mixture of religious, patriotic, cultural and commercial motivations. He could well be taken as a symbol for book history as a discrete subject of study - characterised by one of its most influential figures, Robert Darnton, as "interdisciplinarity run riot", for "neither history nor literature nor economics nor sociology nor bibliography can do justice to all aspects of the life of a book".

The Book History Reader reflects this diversity, and it will provide a very useful way into the subject for students of publishing, library and cultural studies and book history itself. The editors have brought together texts, some quite obscure, but mostly key writings in this area, and grouped them into four thematic sections whose titles are self-explanatory: "What is book history", "From orality to literacy", "Commodifying print: books and authors", and "Books and readers". Each section has a short but useful editorial introduction identifying the significance of the selected texts.

There is a good balance of theoretical and empirical work represented here, though inevitably the more challenging texts are concerned with the "why" and "how" rather than with the "who", "what", "when" and "where" of book history. Thus D. F. McKenzie's contribution to the first section of the reader, "The book as an expressive form", is a richer source for study than his piece on reading in relation to the treaty of Waitangi.

Apart from Darnton, there are welcome and well-chosen extracts from the work of Jerome McGann, Roger Chartier and Pierre Bourdieu in the first thematic section and Chartier and Walter Ong in the second, where Elizabeth Eisenstein's magisterial work, so central to many of the book-history debates, is also represented. Others such as Jurgen Habermas and John B. Thompson would have been welcome additions. But David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery could never have hoped to produce a selection to suit all tastes, even in such a substantial volume.

The breadth of the discipline is well illustrated by the range in the third section, from the short but intellectually intense extracts from Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault on the nature of the author and authorship to John Sutherland's somewhat arithmetical analysis of the spinsters, sea-captains, lawyers and army officers who produced Victorian novels.

The fourth section, on books and readers, contains an interesting piece by E. Jennifer Monaghan on literacy and gender in colonial New England, as well as another well-judged extract from Kate Flint's The Woman Reader , 1837-1914 , but women's perspectives are somewhat underrepresented in the book as a whole.

The empirical work is concerned almost entirely with the book in North America and western Europe, and the selections outside those confines are perhaps a little quirky. One would have welcomed something on African novelists of the 20th century to sit alongside Sutherland's piece, for instance. The editors are also, probably fairly, dismissive of most publishing company histories as valuable sources for the book historian, but there are some less self-congratulatory examples of that genre that could have found a worthy place.

In the short but useful general introduction to the book and the field of study, the editors write interestingly about the ending of the primacy of the book in human communication. However, the nature and implications of that shift are explored much less thoroughly in the reader than that from script to print. It is also the case that there is a very extensive and valuable thematic bibliography of printed sources, but no suggested pathways into the extensive material on book history that is now becoming available online and that one would hope students of the subject would explore for themselves.

However, these comments should not in any way take away from a recognition of the great richness of material made available. The Book History Reader can fairly claim to be the first comprehensive volume to bring such a variety of texts together. It has been thoughtfully selected and skilfully edited. It will surely appear on all student reading lists for courses related to the history of the book - a subject that has now fulfilled Darnton's prediction that it would establish itself "alongside the history of science and the history of art in the canon of scholarly discipline".

Paul Richardson is director, Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies, Oxford Brookes University.

The Book History Reader

Editor - David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery
ISBN - 0 415 22657 0 and 22658 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
Pages - 390

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