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

by James K. Bracken

Reference Works

The most significant book history reference work is The British Book Trade, 1475-1890: A Bibliography, compiled by T. H. Howard-Hill.  This completes the work of Howard-Hill’s massive Index to British Literary Bibliography.  Together, the complementary sets chronicle “the social history of the book trade” in Britain from the beginning of printing through the start of the twentieth century.  Howard-Hill lists 38,661 citations for secondary resources for the study of English-language print culture covering all historical periods, authors, regions, and book-related topics.  The British Book Trade’s limitation is the 1890 cut-off date; however, it has no counterpart for the U.S. book trade.

The Oxford Companion to the Book, edited by Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen, includes encyclopedic essays and brief entries covering the history of books from cave drawings to e-books.  Contributors are an international Who’s Who in book history, bibliography, and related fields.  Comprehensive topical coverage is remarkably balanced and forward looking.  Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G. Musto’s “The Electronic Book” connects print antecedents with possible future manifestations while addressing the impact of the book’s evolution on format, commerce, authorship, and reading practices.  Meanwhile, essays on different national book histories, most notably Scott E. Casper and Joan Shelley Rubin’s “The History of the Book in America,” but also those covering China and the Muslim world, extend discussion beyond the ubiquitous topic of media convergence and multinational conglomerates to place print’s future in specific cultures.  Without any trace of apology, contributors present the digital book as part of book history.

Less physically imposing but equally authoritative is Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose’s A Companion to the History of the Book.  Eliot and Rose place the theoretical foundations of book history in bibliography.  Chapters thoroughly survey the book’s history to the present in both the West and the East while addressing topics such as literacy, books as art, censorship, and copyright.  Angus Phillips’s “Does the Book Have a Future?” underscores the book’s resilience as evidenced in its history.


Textbooks and manuals on book history now used are a mixture of ones from the 1970s (and earlier) and some new ones.  The most traditional approach to book history—through physical bibliography—sticks with new editions of standard older works.  First published in 1972, Philip Gaskell’s often reprinted A New Introduction to Bibliography remains the standard introduction.  William Proctor Williams and Craig S. Abbot’s An Introduction to Bibliographical and Textual Studies, now in a fourth edition, is a more approachable presentation of Gaskell’s content.  Complementing both, G. Thomas Tanselle’s Bibliographical Analysis identifies the major forensic approaches to recovering and understanding the historical meanings of a book’s physical details in order to tell “the life history of books as objects.”  Teaching Bibliography, Textual Criticism, and Book History, edited by Ann R. Hawkins, includes contributed essays describing classroom practices and exercises that re-create many of the specific approaches recorded by Tanselle.

David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery’s An Introduction to Book History is the most textbook-like of introductions to “the contexts in which print culture and book history are studied today.”  Emphasizing the social aspects of the book as a communication technology, Finkelstein and McCleery systematically outline the main theories and critical debates at book history’s origins in bibliography, literary studies, and economic and social history.  They conclude with remarks about the book’s future in a period of new information technologies, media convergence and globalization, and decline in book reading despite the fact that now more people are reading in more ways.  Finkelstein and McCleery’s textbook very consciously references and extends their The Book History Reader, now enlarged in a second edition, which reprints a wide range of classic articles.

Another supplemental collection of reprinted essays is A Potencie of Life, edited by Nicolas Barker, that includes Thomas R. Adams and Barker’s influential “Life Cycle of a Book” model, which some see as an alternative to Darnton’s communication circuit.

Capitalizing on current interest in book history, the five-volume The History of the Book in the West, edited by Alexis Weedon, reprints an even wider selection of previously published writings.

To distinguish these alternative communication models—as if all book historians look alike after a while—Leslie Howsam’s Old Books and New Histories gives a kind of “who’s who of book historians” while outlining book history’s underpinnings in social and economic history, literary criticism, and bibliography.

It remains for the above works to try to include the very latest and most sophisticated data and findings about books as objects.  Advances in digital technologies have made it possible to look even more closely at books than today’s most commonly used book history textbooks suggest.  Noting that book history, as an academic discipline, has typically focused on the book as a cultural object, in their collection of essays The Technological Study of Books and Manuscripts as Artefacts, editors Sarah Neate, David Howell, Richard Ovenden, and A. M. Pollard show the uses of modern scientific instruments and methods to analyze the book as a material object, including X-ray diffraction, spectral imaging, radiocarbon dating, and more, for the purposes of authentication and conservation of books as physical evidence.

Single-Volume Histories

Martyn Lyons’s Books: A Living History is a beautiful book, a solid history of print’s development, and an incisive accounting of issues about its future.  Lyons’s focus is the codex, although his definition of books includes cave paintings and future digital formats.  Rather refreshingly, Lyons calls the codex’s invention, rather than printing’s, the single most important development in the book’s history until the digital revolution.  To Lyons’s thinking, printing simply facilitated making more copies of books.  Digitization, on the other hand, liberates the codex from paper’s limitations and allows the book to continue to develop in new ways.  At the same time, Lyons emphasizes that the printed book’s permanence is mostly attributable to technological simplicity, something that he insightfully contextualizes with data about global population increases.  While more people may be reading, more people are also illiterate, especially in the Third World.  Digitization’s challenge to the codex’s status as primary purveyor of cultural authority and knowledge is really a limited Western phenomenon.  In parts of the world lacking basic modern infrastructure like electricity or money, the printed book is more useful than ever and a part of everyday life.

Nicole Howard’s The Book: The Life Story of a Technology is a concise, readable survey of the book’s development from the earliest writing to digitization.  Howard’s strength and focus is decidedly in the hand press period to 1800.  Characterizations of early periods as “Infancy” (1450-1500) and “Youth” (1501-1600), with “Adulthood” (1600-1800) and “Maturity” (1800-1900) following, seem to imply that Howard’s final chapter, “The Future of Books: Twentieth Century and Beyond,” must describe something like the book’s elder years or maybe its dotage.  Howard makes a clear distinction between books and e-books and looks more to the book’s past than to its future.

Comprehensive Histories

Most important are the multivolume histories for the United States and Britain.  Foremost is the series “A History of the Book in America,” edited by David D. Hall.  The series is a reference history of the book’s making and use in the United States.  Volumes are similarly organized in authoritative, well-documented chapters contributed by experts with supporting statistical appendixes.  Individual volumes are Volume 1: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, edited by Hugh Amory and David D. Hall; Volume 2: An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley; Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880, edited by Scott E. Casper, Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship; Volume 4: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940, edited by Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway; and Volume 5: The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America, edited by David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Michael Schudson.  Volume 5 brings the book’s story into the twenty-first century with most essays repeatedly pointing to the adoption of digital technologies and new publishing, marketing, and distribution strategies and practices as hallmarks of the printed book’s resilience.  David Reinking’s concluding “Valuing Reading, Writing, and Books in a Post-Typographic World” asks and answers the question “What Do Books Do to Us and for Us?”  Reinking moves the book’s future from the competing models of print or digital to what he sees as a “period of paradigmatic crisis” of print and digital.

Even more ambitious is “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain” series, now under the general editorship of John Barnard, David McKitterick, and I. R. Willison.  The series is a reference history for the making and use of books in Britain.  Volumes are similarly organized in authoritative, well-documented chapters contributed by experts.  Published to date are Volume I, 400-1100, edited by Richard Gameson; Volume II, 1100-1400, edited by Nigel J. Morgan and Rodney M. Thomson; Volume III, 1400-1557, edited by Lotte Hellinga and J. B. Trapp; Volume IV, 1557-1695, edited by John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie, with the assistance of Maureen Bell; Volume V, 1695-1830, edited by Michael F. Suarez and Michael L. Turner; and Volume VI, 1830-1914, edited by David McKitterick.  Forthcoming Volume VII, edited by Andrew Nash, Claire Squires, and I. R. Willison, will cover the twentieth century.  Even though the account of the twentieth century remains to be published, what British book history might reveal about the book’s future is more than suggestive in Volume VI, 1830-1914.  McKitterick’s “Changes in the look of the book” neatly describes industrialization’s impact on making books by hand as a dramatic leap not unlike the present’s rapid transition from analog to digital technologies.  Similarly, Graham Law and Robert L. Patten’s “The Serial Revolution” concludes that serialization’s development parallels that now commonplace for electronic mass media and the Internet.  Aileen Fyfe’s “The Information Revolution” goes even further, suggesting that the nineteenth-century’s interest for information to be made “publicly available” contributed to the twentieth-century’s social and cultural appetite for more of the same and to be connected 24/7.

Other major national book history series, all essentially following the U.S. and British models, include the “History of the Book in Canada” series edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde; “The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland,” edited by Bill Bell, David Finkelstein, and Alistair McCleery; “A History of the Book in Australia,” edited by John Arnold, Martyn Lyons, Craig Munro, and Robyn Sheahan-Bright; and “The Oxford History of the Irish Book,” edited by Robert Welch and Brian Walker.  It is not surprising that these histories commonly emphasize a native book publishing industry’s importance to preserving a national cultural identity by resisting media interconnection, verticality, and globalization now and in the future.

Works Cited: Single-Volume Histories

Works Cited: Comprehensive Histories