Printing practice done by the book

The Nature of the Book
March 3, 2000

The nature of The Nature of the Book is one of expansive aspirations. Adrian Johns begins arrestingly, taking his own book as the example of any or every book to ask how printed text has come to enjoy its assured status of certainty, authority and reliability; of how books have become trustworthy disseminators of knowledge.

In answering these questions Johns leaves behind matters of the mechanics of book production; he is embarking on a "complete history of the early print universe". The journey leads to other bold claims: his will be the "first real attempt to portray print culture in the making", which will go on to provide "the first extensive taxonomy of practices labelled piratical - from piracy itself, through abridgement, epitomising and translation, to plagiarism and libel".

The parameters of Johns's "print culture" were defined 20 years ago with the publication of Elizabeth Eisenstein's Copernican text The Printing Press as an Agent of Change , without which none of Johns's subsequent discussion would be possible. Responses to Eisenstein's work, summarised in 1987 in The Advent of Printing , a collection of essays and a bibliography of reviews edited by Peter McNally, have helped to shape the development of the fledgling discipline of the history of the book. Johns's particular dialectical position to Eisenstein is made explicit early on: to see the products of the printing press as imposing their innate qualities of fixity on the social and cultural developments of the Reformation and the scientific revolution of early modern Europe is to confuse cause and effect. Johns argues that the taken-for-granted attributes of authority, veracity and textual reliability intrinsic to Eisenstein's view of the printed book, are in fact extrinsic to the physical processes and products of printing; that they have had to be grafted on over time through the concerted, often thwarted, efforts of author and printer. So far, so convincing.

Johns provides illustration and exegesis of this grafting process. Now in the department of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, the book results largely from research begun by Johns as a graduate student in the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge; both the methodological provenance and the trans-Atlantic completion of the project are evident.

Johns's frames of reference fall within the arenas of natural philosophy and science; his examples chart the contentious publishing histories of scientific thought from the astronomical treatises produced in his own printing house by the 16th-century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe to the 18th-century Historia Cœlestis Britannica of Tycho's English counterpart John Flamsteed. The result is a book that will sit more happily on the reading list of a course in the history of science than on one in the history of the book.

Tycho notwithstanding, Johns's references are largely English, centring on the London book trades. His "guided tour of this early print culture" nods to an American audience, romantically promising that "readers will be lead down the darkest alleys of London". But the book does benefit from the Americanness of its production values; it is typo-free; its apparatus of index and bibliographies are comprehensive and meticulously accurate, the former easy to use and the latter a valuable multi-disciplinary compression of scholarship.

Anglocentric in his references, Johns's inspiration nonetheless has a slight French accent. Admiring the bolder historiographical objectives of book historians such as Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier, he is closer to a development that he leaves untranslated as the histoire du livre than to the traditional works of British historical bibliography. He even cites the "F-word", footnoting Foucault's What is an Author ?

Despite a prefatory assertion that the book has been "through composed" as a single, cumulative argument, the chapters tend to read as individual essays, each with their own introduction and conclusion. And as with collections of essays, they vary in quality. Those of greatest utility are likely to include the scene-setting exploration of the culture and credibility of the printed book in early 17th-century London, with its examination of the dynamics of various "domains" of book production (printing houses), distribution (bookshops) and consumption (coffee-houses, studies and salons), and the narrowing of the focus on this world to its epicentre, the Stationers' Hall.

Here, in the former property of the earls of Pembroke, the Stationers' Company, that hybrid union of professional organisation and regulatory body, is shown to have developed a platform of mechanisms to generate customer confidence and intellectual authority in the products of its craftsmen.

Elsewhere in the volume there are a few good tales to be told. Notably the progress of John Streater ( fl . 1650-70), republican soldier, polemical pamphleteer and, after arrest and court-martial, a printer with a career characterised by sedition and serial imprisonment, but whose legacy included the influential London printing house that would go on to produce Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy . And ultimately it is the account of the intellectual, astronomical duel between Newton and John Flamsteed that most succinctly epitomises Johns's thesis; it was a rivalry that above all "demonstrated how crucial it could be for aspirant providers of authoritative natural knowledge to master the domains of print, but also how difficult this was to achieve".

Christopher Phipps is a librarian at the London Library.

The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making

Author - Adrian Johns
ISBN - 0 226 40121 9
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 753

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