The book as a thing of the past

December 17, 1999

This may be the age of electronic text, but the printed page is not history yet. Olga Wojtas discovers a new- found interest in the book

Setting up new research centres is a well-established means of academic empire-building. But Bill Bell, co-director of the recently launched Centre for the History of the Book at Edinburgh University, has other aims in mind.

Edinburgh joins a number of international centres dedicated to advanced research into the history of the book, and Dr Bell says the subject has already been strongly encouraged in the United Kingdom by an interdisciplinary London University MA course.

But Dr Bell disagrees with those who have ambitions to set up departments of book history and earmark jobs for "book historians".

"Institutionalisation of that kind would kill it. Book history draws its strength from the way in which it informs and to a certain extent reorients other fields of study," he says.

Book history is about much more than printed books. It ranges from manuscripts to electronic text and production technology, as well as investigating the relations among publishers, authors and readers. It draws together bibliography, economics, social history, literary criticism and cultural theory.

"The task that lies ahead for book history is not to reproduce itself in students, but to plan its disappearance as elegantly and effectively as possible," says Dr Bell.

"When cultural historians and literary theorists come to see the production, circulation and reception of texts as important to what they do, then our task will be done."

Scotland has a wealth of publishers' archives, some of which have hardly been looked at. Scots have been major players in the book trade, through companies such as Collins, Nelson, Oliver & Boyd and Blackwood's, which were publishers for the British Empire and had a huge economic impact. They were also prominent in London, through companies such as Macmillan and Smith & Elder.

Dr Bell suggests this stemmed from the "democratic intellect", a devotion to literacy combining with the business ethos.

"Nineteenth-century English people with the same kind of intellectual equipment would have been from a class background which meant they had very little to do with the trade."

He also speculates that publishing helped foster the Scottish Enlightenment.

"I imagine the proliferation of texts, the ease with which books could be quickly published and circulated in Edinburgh in particular, created an environment that allowed intellectual life to flourish."

Dr Bell and his co-director, Jonquil Bevan, are general editors of a major four-volume History of the Book in Scotland, to be published by Edinburgh University Press, which will begin with manuscripts and the introduction of the native printing trade in the 16th century, and end with the challenge to the book from other media.

But Dr Bell believes reports of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated.

"It's interesting the way electronic text has a tendency to mimic more traditional forms of printing technology even in nomenclature. Web page, Powerbook and bookmark suggest there are fewer discontinuities than some people like to think." Hypertext and CD-Roms are often said to differ from printed text in that they do not have to be read from front to back, and can be navigated interactively.

"But none of us has ever read a newspaper, encyclopaedia or dictionary from front to back. It's hardly surprising that it is these interactive forms of reference book that have adapted so well."

There may be a decline over the next couple of generations in the emotional and sensual attachment to the book as a material object, with the widening availability of hand-held CD-Rom readers, Dr Bell predicts.

"The question is not 'does the book have a future?' but 'what will the book be in the future?' But it may also be that at the codex's demise, there will be a kind of nostalgic revival of printed text in the same way that in recent decades we have seen a revival in the handprinted book."

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