The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America

By Richard B. Sher | Go to book overview

Conclusion

Books were the basic building blocks of the Enlightenment, an edifice erected one block at a time. In reconstructing the book history of the Scottish Enlightenment, therefore, we have been engaged in a study of the architecture of book culture. We have followed a trail from David Hume's boastful pronouncement in the 1750s about Scotland being “the People most distinguish'd for Literature in Europe” to a time less than fifty years later when that boast had considerably more merit than most contemporaries might have thought possible when it was first uttered. To a very large extent, what made it so was the production of new learned and literary books by Scottish authors and their publishers in London and Edinburgh, along with the subsequent reprinting of those books, especially in Dublin and Philadelphia.

But built environments do not last forever. If the argument of this book is correct, it stands to reason that the Scottish Enlightenment would have difficulty outlasting the publishing patterns that sustained it during its golden age. Those patterns did not deteriorate overnight, and their deterioration did not constitute the sole reason for the waning of the Scottish Enlightenment. Among other things, a broader cultural crisis has been identified, caused partly by the political corruption of literature and partly by the very success of the Enlightenment print project itself. Increasingly, the boundless optimism about the expansion of book knowledge voiced by the author of the preface to Guthrie's Geography in 1770 had to compete with an awareness of what Paul Keen has called “the disruptive possibility of an endlessly accelerating, self-regenerating inflation of print which

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