darnton on the history of the book

Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?

One can easily lose sight of the larger dimensions of the enterprise because book historians often stray into esoteric byways and unconnected specializations. Their work can be so fragmented, even within the limits of the literature on a single country, that it may seem hopeless to conceive of book history as a single subject, to be studied from a comparative perspective across the whole range of historical disciplines. But books themselves do not respect limits either linguisteic or national. They have often been written by authors who belonged to an international republic of letters, composed by printers who did not work in their native tongue, sold by booksellers who operated across national boundaries, and read in one language by readers who spoke another. Books also refuse to be contained within the confines of a single discipline when treated as objects of study. Neither history nor literature nor economics nor sociology nor bibliography can do justice to all the aspects of the life of a book. By its very nature, therefore, the history of books must be international in scale and interdisciplinary in method. But it need not lack conceptual coherence, because books belong to circuits of communicaiton that operate in consistent patterns, however complex they may be. By unearthing those circuits, historians can show that books do not merely recount history; they make it.

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3 thoughts on “darnton on the history of the book

  1. Very nice; not one I’d read yet. I’m touching on some of my stuff in a course I’m teaching this semester; thanks for the hint.
    How is the cat?

  2. Darnton is very readable and very well respected as a social historian and book historian. I certainly recommend him.
    Max seems to be doing okay. Thanks for asking. After two weeks of taking him in for subcutaneous fluid injections, we’re awaiting the latest blood results. We’re trying to occupy the space between taking extraordinary measures that will likely only make the last days (months? years?) of his long life miserable and taking no action at all. The damage to his kidneys cannot be reversed, the vet says, but we can slow the progression of further damage.

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