what do we call this?

Increasingly, the term “History of the Book” (aka “Book History”) appears inadequate to describe the varied scholarly work that is actually taking place under this rubric, and much related work is unnecessarily excluded. The title of my course last semester was “Histories of Writing, Reading, and Publishing,” which was cribbed and altered from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (altered because not all writing could be accurately described as “authorship”). But such a phrase is unattractively long and not at all sexy.

One of the problems with the term “Book History” is that we romanticize far too much the technology of the “book” (a problematic term itself, conjuring images of the codex to the exclusion of other printed forms), and this romanticizing blinds us to its unique (even unusual or impractical) features while also causing us to ignore evidence of other forms of communication, such as the world of orality and aurality, and their influence upon literate practices.

One of my lines of argument to establish exigence in my courses goes like this:

  • Humans have been around for many thousands of years.
  • We date the earliest evidence of writing to approximately 6,000 years ago.
  • Print was developed even more recently than that, and in the West, just a few hundred years ago.
  • While scholars disagree about how best to measure the ability to read and write, there is a general consensus that widespread literacy is a very recent phenomenon.

If we take a progressive, teleological view of history, then yes, the “book” deserves to be the center of attention: what comes more recently is obviously the best of what we are yet capable of creating. But if we have a more objective view, then we note that the “book” is barely a blip on the radar screen of human history, and that it brings with it as many limitations as it does strengths. The lamentations over the competition for our attention presented by electronic media seem silly in this light. As D. F. McKenzie and Adam Fox have shown, no medium has ever existed without its uses and meaning being altered by other media. Of course, as new media have appeared, they have often produced strong cultural anxieties. We fret over the Internet and videogames: three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope worried about the widespread availability of print.

These musings were sparked by an announcement from HoBo that led me to this website:

Centre for Manuscript and Print studies
at the Institute of English Studies (London)

A new research centre created from the merger of the Centre for Palaeography and the Research Centre in the History of the Book

Palaeography, Codicology, Diplomatic and Calligraphy; History of Printing; Manuscript and Print Relations; History of Publishing and the Book Trade; Ephemera Studies; History of Reading; History of Libraries, Collecting and Scholarship; Analytical, Descriptive, and Historical Bibliography; Textual Criticism and Textual Theory; The Electronic Book

The list of areas of study is appealing and could be greatly expanded. For one thing, what about speaking & listening and their relationship to the creation, distribution, and reception of written or printed material? I don’t mean to suggest that the design of this center is flawed, just that the question of what constitutes “book history” is much more vexed than it appears at first.

On the other hand, any field of study has to have a center…right? What’s the more expanded version of a counter-argument to what I’ve written above?

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2 thoughts on “what do we call this?

  1. Perhaps the History of Literacy is a better name, especially if you want to include all forms of writing, including those on tablets ect that are not traditionally labelled as “books.” The term, to me, is also inclusive of the writers, readers, critics, while in itself allows one to side step an actually study of books and criticism but at the body of knowledge surrounding them itself.
    Just a suggestion,

  2. I must say that I still hesitate before describing my research area as book history or history of the book, not least because it sometimes involves an explanation that book actually means books. (More than once have I been misidentified as an historian of the bible!) Added to that, there’s the implication – of which as someone within a literary department I am understandably wary – that if one studies history of the book, that must make one a book historian

    Other alternatives include: sociology of texts (McKenzie); bibliography (Greg, Pollard et al and, I feel, ripe for reclaiming); the history of the use of the intellect (Nicolas Barker); histoire du livre; or even Geschichte des Buchwesens.

    Of course, each of these terms carries different associations and, more importantly, different histories: to describe oneself as a bibliographer is to identify oneself as part of a long and distinguished Anglo-American tradition of predominantly literary scholarship, while to use a phrase like ‘history of the book’, on the other hand, is to associate yourself with a more recent European tradition beginning with Febvre and Martin, but now given an Anglo-American twist with SHARP.

    So perhaps it depends on your audience: to my colleagues and librarians, I tend to say bibliographer and to my historian friends history of the book. And as far as my own undergraduate, um, book history course is concerned, that’s entitled: ‘Authors, Books and Readers in Early Modern England’…

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