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Five Hundred Years of Printing
June 27, 1997

This is the fourth edition of S. H. Steinberg's useful reference work. It was first issued in a Penguin edition in 1955 with a preface by Beatrice Warde, publicity manager of the Monotype Corporation. Then came the revised, lavishly illustrated second edition of 1961. After the author's death, a third edition of 1974 appeared with minor revisions made by the late James Moran. Now, after nearly 25 years, yet another revised version has been issued under the auspices of the British Library. Editorial guidance has been supplied by John Trevitt, a book designer who has served Cambridge University Press as art and design director.

According to David Hume, the possibility of continually improving and correcting works in successive editions constitutes the chief advantage conferred by printing. But what is possible does not always occur. Although they contain updated entries, some later editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are inferior to earlier ones. This point seems relevant to the book under review. At first glance, one is impressed by the greatly enlarged handsome format and by the jacket cover information that there are "over a hundred superb illustrations chosen afresh from the British Library's rich collection". The table of contents also suggests that measures have been taken to remedy the chief defect in earlier editions - Steinberg's increasingly neglectful treatment of the past 400 years. Whereas he devoted a single chapter to both the 19th and 20th centuries, the new edition offers two chapters on the 20th century alone. Of course our century is much longer now than it was when Steinberg began to compose his text. His book was originally intended to commemorate the cinquecentennial year of 1940, as we learn from Trevitt's useful "Reviser's preface".

The addition of this preface is welcome but the absence of endnotes is not. The few changes that have been made in the long opening chapter dealing with the first century of printing are not helpful. Deletions include useful passages on catalogues, handbills and other publicity techniques developed by early printers. Citations from colophons conveying early printers' views are also eliminated. Additions include unnecessary borrowings from recent works: "Says John Harthan ... Durer is a towering figure and stands with one foot in the medieval and the other in the modern world." Other unhelpful citations have been assigned simply to "Lewis" or "Morison" and cannot be tracked down, for several titles are assigned to each author in the bibliography.

The impression left by the table of contents turns out to be illusory. Two of the last three chapters cover the interval between 1800 and 1950 by reshuffling the sections contained in Steinberg's single final chapter on "The 19th century and after". The occasional updated references that have been inserted are unimpressive: Stephen Hawkings (sic, also misspelled in the index) and John Grisham are mentioned as best-selling authors; a poem by W. H. Auden has become popular thanks to the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The new final chapter on "The postwar world" enables the reviser to display his special expertise and indicates his indifference to the issues that preoccupied Steinberg. It bristles with technical terms but says little about how publishing is being affected by photocopiers or about the transformative effects of television. Although Steinberg's bibliography is badly outdated, it still offers more discriminating guidance than does Trevitt's. Steinberg asked the reader to use his brief annotated list of titles in conjunction with his endnotes; Trevitt simply lists hundreds of ill-assorted titles. The superiority of the earlier edition is also evident in the choice of illustrations. Steinberg chose pictures to go with specific points made in his account. The new plates decorate but do not adequately illustrate the text.

Elizabeth Eisenstein is author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

Five Hundred Years of Printing

Author - Sigfrid Henry Steinberg
ISBN - 07123 0414 2 and 0438 X
Publisher - British Library
Price - £25.00 and £14.95
Pages - 266

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