Trading in a literary sphere

A Bibliographic History of the Book - A Genius for Letters
April 18, 1997

The history of the book, that hybrid manifestation of a sometimes unequal collaboration between historians and bibliographers, itself has a history of little more than 30 years, and has only flourished as an academic movement within the past 15 years. Beginning with Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's L'Apparition du Livre (published in 1958, but only in 1976 translated into English as The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800), the Copernican texts have included Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979). The movement's need for self-definition was addressed by Robert Darnton's 1982 essay, "What is the history of the book?", a question that Nicolas Barker and Thomas R. Adams' prefatory chapter to the published Clark lectures of 1986-87, A New Model for the Study of the Book, sought to answer.

With Joseph Rosenblum's work, A Bibliographic History of the Book, comes the movement's own enumerative bibliography. It is a selective compilation, but proves a useful organisational tool (aimed mostly at the novice, but with enough detail to be of interest to the specialist) for rationalising a vast range of books on books. It is also a snapshot of the aca-demic discipline as it now stands. One of nearly 40 well-produced Magill bibliographies published since 1989, this is the third title in The History of the Book series edited by Bill Katz.

Rosenblum arranges his annotated entries in four broad groupings across 19 sub-divisional chapters. The section on resources provides a brief guide to general reference works and includes entries on earlier, invariably more specialist bibliographical bibliographies. The second section, on technical aspects, devotes a chapter each to writing surfaces, ink, the alphabet, printing, design, illustration and binding. The history entries are ordered chronologically by subject, and include the works of traditional, analytical bibliography (Theodore's Besterman's The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography, and R. B. McKerrow's An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students) which form a significant component of the discipline.

This work focuses on publications in the West, with the emphasis very much on the anglophone West (with a distinct, though not impenetrable American accent). Rosenblum lists only the English translation of Febvre and Martin, and the entry on Jurgen Habermas's The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) fails to mention its original appearance in German years earlier. Each entry is given a serviceable, largely descriptive annotation; occasionally Rosenblum is gently evaluative, and with some more recent major works includes references to key reviews.

The final section of the volume, with an appendix on private presses, covers works on book-collecting and bookselling. Book historians are concerned with a number of practical processes connected with the production and dissemination of texts, but none has greater social, political and cultural implications than the money, markets and marketing of the book-buyer and bookseller relationship.

The commercial nexus of the trade is the subject of A Genius for Letters, the 15th volume in the Publishing Pathways series, and in some ways a reclamation of the discipline by bibliographers. Contributors include an Italian professor of bibliography, a curator at the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, an antiquarian book-dealer, a past president of the Bibliographical Society, and Germaine Greer, "unofficial fellow and special lecturer at Newnham College, Cambridge". Many of the essays in the volume are models of the genre.

The central and longest contribution, with the broadest sweep and the best illustrations, is Giles Mandelbrote's "From the warehouse to the counting-house" which traces the hierarchy of booksellers in late-17th-century London. The characters include shop-owners who were high-profile publishers, booksellers who had shops but no imprints of their own, itinerant secondhand-book dealers and hawkers. He charts the increasing levels of specialisation of booksellers, from the prestigious to the humble. The centrality of the counting house points to a dominant theme - that of money.

Greer's essay, covering the same period, also begins with the autobiography of the bookseller John Dunton. Her subject is, however, Samuel Briscoe, failed "literary pimp", publisher of licentious and at least semifictional correspondence and autobiographies, who seemed unsuccessful even with a botched edition of the Earl of Rochester's letters. Greer's entertaining account of Briscoe's fraudulent contributions and false attributions to Aphra Behn's oeuvre ends with a passionate plea for scholarly textual authentification and the establishment of a more accurate Behn canon.

If Briscoe's enterprises were financial flops, there were other booksellers who made buoyant profits. William Zachs's painstaking analysis of the archives of the family firm, John Murray, reveals the eponymous founder to be an astute, successful businessman. Murray Sr managed the editing and production of the books himself, including the negotiation of collaborations and deals with other booksellers, often without the authors' knowledge. He was keen to broaden his market: "to make... a saleable work it should be addressed to the Mob of Readers, to literary Amateurs, & to Smatterers in taste ... to Slender as well as to profound capacities: If you are able to entertain the Ladies your business is done". According to Murray's letters, William Richardson's Analysis of Shakespeare's Remarkable Characters (1774) particularly satisfied this last market.

Despite the period covered, the 18th century is very much the focus of this collection. Other essays include Christopher Edwards's "Antiquarian bookselling in Britain in 1725", which makes much use of Humfrey Wanley's diary; James Tierney's piece on book advertisements in mid-18th century newspapers; and Luigi Balsamo's useful survey of the international nature of bookselling in Italy. Only Bill Bell's revisionist history of Smith & Elder, and Simon Eliot's look at the collapse of circulating libraries and the subsequent rise of book clubs cover the 19th and 20th centuries; and only Anthony Hobson's study of the relationships between booksellers and bookbinders covers the earliest period.

Almost inevitably with such collections, you feel the need for something to draw it all together; there are interesting connections to be made, and a more ambitious introduction might have helped.

Christopher Phipps is administrator, London Library.

A Bibliographic History of the Book: An Annotated Guide to the Literature

Editor - Joseph Rosenblum
ISBN - 0 8108 3009 4
Publisher - Scarecrow and Salem Presses
Price - £49.50
Pages - 424

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