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Book History and Print Culture at the Millennium (March 2014): Home

by James K. Bracken

Issue

This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Choice (volume 51 | number 7).

Abstract and Introduction

This essay identifies resources for the study of book history and print culture.  Covering primarily English-language printed books published since 2000, it discusses notable titles in four parts.  Part 1 presents key publications about the modern book publishing business; coverage includes titles about trade and scholarly book publishing as well as publishers and publishing houses.  Part 2 covers book design and production, including books about typefaces, pages, bindings, and formats, as well as catalogs of beautiful books.  Part 3 discusses key publications from the discipline known as the history of the book, including reference works, textbooks, and single-volume and comprehensive book histories.  Part 4 includes books about the future of the book by a range of scholars, critics, book historians, and other writers.  Most of the titles identify an increasingly corporate mind-set along with digital technologies as the primary agents changing book publishing and print culture now and in the future.

In tracking allusions to books and other printed media in nineteenth-century popular literature, book historian Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain shows an age’s bibliographical awareness.  In the writings of Trollope, Dickens, and other authors, we see that books are sometimes presented as physical barriers and weapons, as intermediaries and social bridges, and when serving as “it-narrators,” as anthropomorphized tellers of their own stories, the original “talking books.”[1]  Victorian literary characters even read books.  Price’s historical analysis of popular literary depictions of reading and non-reading of books and other print media helps to reveal print’s status in Victorian consciousness and culture.

So what is print’s status in our own consciousness and culture at the millennium?  Any sequel to Price about the presence of books and print in our time would likely give an equally complex picture.  Our age seems to be one of bibliographical paradox: at just the moment when the printed book’s future is mostly being questioned, more people than ever seem consciously and unconsciously to make bibliographical references.  Just count your “bookmarked” “pages” to see evidence of print in our everyday language.  Similarly, at the moment when the printed book is said to be history (that is, it seems to have no future), academic interest in the book’s and other printed media’s past, inclusively referred to as book history or the history of the book, is thriving; for a million-plus examples, just do a Google search on “history of the book” with “course.”[2]

The paradox continues in that what is said to be killing the printed book—the Internet and digital technology—not only seem to be keeping the book alive but also driving our millennial interest and familiarity with its past.  How many classic typefaces do you now know by name all because of your computer’s pull-down font menu?  As Umberto Eco remarks in his conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière in This Is Not the End of the Book, “The Internet has returned us to the alphabet.  If we thought we had become a purely visual civilization, the computer returns us to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on everyone has to read.”

At book history’s core is telling the “life history” of books.[3]  All aspects of a book’s history from author’s conception through reader’s reception are germane.  The field extends to other print and written media (like periodicals and manuscripts) and is also collectively referred to as the study of print culture.  Book history’s focuses are expansive and often considered interchangeable, including print’s physical features (like typefaces and pages) and contents (the literal text and the ideas that it inspires) along with the materials (ink, paper, and printing presses) and agents (authors, publishers, and readers) of print’s making and uses.  Robert Darnton famously described the book’s life history as the “communication circuit.”[4]  Based on the study of eighteenth-century French printing, Darnton’s model centers on the human agency in making books.  Meanwhile, the importance of a technology’s agency has been even more famously recognized in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, which describes the role of the hand press in the transition from scribal manuscript culture to printed book culture.[5]

Telling the life histories of books from the past and in our present age and thereafter will have continuities and differences.  In common with the past, all good life histories of books produced in any age should connect with the present and look to the future.  On the other hand, the life histories of today’s and tomorrow’s books cannot be discussed without acknowledging some of the new agents now changing publishing, such as media interconnection, verticality, globalization, and digital technologies.

This essay identifies resources for the study of book history and print culture that recognize the evolving contexts for telling books’ life histories in the present and future.  Covering primarily English-language printed books published since 2000, this essay discusses notable titles on the topic of the modern book publishing business, book design and production, the history of the book, and the future of books and print culture.  The essay is organized in four main parts, starting with key publications about the modern book publishing business.  Coverage includes titles about trade and scholarly book publishing as well as publishers and publishing houses.  Part two covers book design and production, including books about typefaces, pages, bindings, and formats, as well as catalogs of beautiful books.  Part three covers key publications from the discipline known as the history of the book, including reference works, textbooks, and single-volume and comprehensive book histories.  Part four includes books about the future of the book by a range of scholars, critics, book historians, and other writers.  In showing our present age’s awareness of print culture and taking a stab at predicting what may lie ahead for books, most of the selected titles identify an increasingly corporate mind-set along with digital technologies as the primary agents changing book publishing and print culture now and in the future.  Interestingly, both print’s critics and its defenders ultimately arrive at the same place, with print and digital cultures coexisting for the foreseeable future.


[1] Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, 2012), p. 108.

[2] The premier program for book history is Rare Book School (www.rarebookschool.org/), founded in 1983 and since 1992 located at the University of Virginia.  For Rare Book School’s lists of other resources about book history, see the “Preliminary Reading Lists” in the course descriptions at www.rarebookschool.org/courses/.  This article is particularly indebted to the resource list for Michael F. Suarez’s course “Teaching the History of the Book.”

[3] The phrase “life history” of books originated with W. W. Greg in “Bibliography—A Retrospect,” in The Bibliographical Society, 1892-1942: Studies in Retrospect.  Ed. F. C. Francis (London: Bibliographical Society, 1949), p. 27: “it is this life-history of books that is the true study of the bibliographer.... in the ultimate resort the object of bibliographical study is, I believe, to reconstruct for each particular book the history of its life, to make it reveal in its most intimate detail the story of its birth and adventures as the material vehicle of the living word.”

[4] Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus (Summer 1982): 65-83, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024803.

[5] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).


James K. Bracken (jbracke1@kent.edu) is dean and professor, University Libraries, Kent State University.