3 June, 2014Issue 25.3HistoryNon-fiction

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From Cuneiform to e-books

Edward Hicks

the-book The Book: A Global History
Edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen
Oxford University Press, 2013
768 pages
ISBN 978-0199679416

This is a weighty book. It is both physically weighty, and weighty in its intention of providing a comprehensive history of the book in one volume. The introduction spells out the book’s intention to look at the “production, dissemination, and reception of texts”. Growing out of the Oxford Companion of the Book, but presented in one finely produced volume, this tome provides neat summaries for would-be specialists, with a useful bibliography at the end of each chapter. But the unobtrusive nature of the footnotes and finely adorned dust-jacket, alongside the snappy title, implies a desire for a wider audience. It testifies to the growing interest in book history. This wider target audience and the 51 chapters necessitate evaluation of the work as a whole rather than as a series of scholarly essays to be read in isolation.

The Book begins with a chronological account of the development of writing and early “book” production, stretching back to pre-history. A series of thematic essays follows, some on certain overarching topics such as scriptural texts, some on technical issues such as the technology and economics of printing. Although dense, these technical chapters do highlight the often-forgotten process of how a book was printed and prepared for publication. The second section consists of essays on different countries, beginning with three on England (the only country given more than one chapter), which cover all corners of the globe.

This fragmented approach has several advantages and drawbacks. Specialist historians on the book history of different regions are better able to synthesise current debate than a generalist trying to cover all areas, familiar and unfamiliar. It also ensures a very broad range of geographic coverage which, though perhaps tilted towards Europe and its colonial outposts, nonetheless encompasses the entire world. Printing comes across as one of the major legacies of Imperialism. The chief drawback, however, is the absence of a consistent argument or interpretation throughout the book. The best essays, notably on Italy, do have an argument within them, but most tend to be expositions without any bite to engage the reader. This contrasts with, for example, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. The lack of overarching themes might have been rectified in the introduction, which fails to draw the variety of essays together.

The fragmented approach also leads to striking inconsistencies. Some authors begin their essays on the history of the book in a certain country or region with the advent of printing. As a result, Caxton, not Bede or Beowulf, begins the history of the English book. Others authors delve further back to the time of vellum and papyrus. Similarly there are discrepancies on when to end. Some essays continue their accounts to the present day; others stop well short, with the account of Spain finishing abruptly in the later years of Franco’s dictatorship. Additionally, by relying mainly on a national focus, the interesting comparisons which keep cropping up—such as the development of reading societies or public or circulating libraries in different parts of the world—are dispersed. A thematic chapter, or even a better-organised index, would have been helpful. Lastly, the chapters sometime come across as too short, endeavouring to include far too much information. This is especially true of the sections on Asia—given that the origins of printing lie in China, and given its long history and immense geographical scope, trying to cover this material in one chapter (equivalent to that allotted to the Baltic States) proves impractical. The need for more space is increased by the lay reader’s probable lack of familiarity with Asian literature and book production.

In terms of fulfilling its goal, the book is excellent in giving accounts of the production of texts, from the clay tablets in Babylon, the papyrus of Egypt, and the manuscripts of medieval Europe, to the printed and electronic material of today. The dissemination of texts and certain aspects of the text themselves, notably images (including illustrations, etchings) also receive good coverage. The methods of preventing dissemination through censorship receives its own thematic chapter alongside several references to the liberalisation of published material as social attitudes changed and dictatorships were supplanted by democracies in the 20th century. Equally, the specific details of printing firms and vehicles for distribution, such as libraries, are also covered. However there tends to be little direct engagement with the contents of the books themselves. Statistical examinations of the popularity of different genres over time are somewhat dry. Book construction— drafting and writing, organising, binding and distributing—and reception across time could have been enlivened and personalised by contrasting, for example, the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Richardson, Dickens and Rowling. This might have assisted with fulfilling the book’s third goal of focusing on the reception of texts. This is a notoriously difficult task—it is hard to know how many people read certain texts or what most readers think of them. Books can often be subject to extraordinary interpretations and the opinion of critics, expressed in learned reviews, can deviate massively from public opinion or posterity. But it does feel that little effort is made to tackle, let alone surmount, these obstacles because of the unwillingness to concentrate on individual texts.

This hefty tome leaves the reader with some regrets. It contains a wide range of scholarship, much interesting information, and some fine essays. Yet there seems some uncertainty as to its purpose. It is unclear whether it is striving to be an encyclopaedia of information on book history or a collection of essays. A new edition would benefit from a more detailed index, and a longer, bolder introduction which endeavours to draw together the various different chapters. This is an interesting book, but one which could have devoted more of its length to a discussion of the reception of texts, acknowledging the methodological difficulties of such a discussion, and to more case studies dealing with specific literary works, exemplifying the continuities and changes over three millennia of book history.

Edward Hicks is reading for a DPhil in History at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review.