David Pearson. Books as History: The Importance of Books beyond Their Texts

By Kowalchuk, Kristine | Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

David Pearson. Books as History: The Importance of Books beyond Their Texts


Kowalchuk, Kristine, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada


David Pearson. Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts. London, England: The British Library; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2011. 208 pp.; US $29.95 ISBN 9781584562900

In the foreword to this second edition of Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts, author David Pearson clearly states the work's two aims: "Primarily, [this book] is about the various ways in which books can be interesting as artefacts, as objects with individual histories and design characteristics, beyond whatever value they have in the texts they convey. The ways in which books are made, owned, written in, mutilated and bound all add something to the documentary heritage which is central to the record of human civilisation. The second theme is around the importance of seeing this, at a time when the world of books is in flux, and the need for them is questioned as their traditional functions are increasingly undertaken by electronic media" (5). While the reference to "human civilisation" is a bit misleading considering Pearson focuses mostly on British book history, this work does generally accomplish both aims. Pearson is clearly passionate about his topic, and he succeeds in providing an engaging and informative introduction to books as meaningful cultural objects--as not only texts, but also "containers of texts." Significantly, he does so through extensive use of photos of books: he shows the reader how these books matter in ways beyond the words they contain, by letting images of covers, bindings, illustrations, and marginalia prove it. While one is, of course, taught never to judge a book by its cover, Pearson suggests that covers, and all other paratextual elements, in fact have much to tell about a book's history.

Pearson begins his work, which would be of interest to scholars of book culture, manuscript studies, and European cultural history, with a chapter on books in history, in which he also refers to the history of bibliography itself. This section offers a basic introduction to the topic; while Pearson's mention of bibliographer Don McKenzie, who studied the sociology of texts and "how the material form in which texts are transmitted influences their meaning" (22) is helpful, there are a number of other important scholars who might have been mentioned here, such as Harold Love, Roger Chartier, Mirjam Foot, and others. In chapter 2, Pearson focuses on book design, including type and letter forms, illustration and decoration, and books as art; in later chapters he also discusses covers, bindings, and, in a limited way, paper (though not ink). Some of this material is, of course, as relevant to digital media as books: type, illustration, and decoration are just as important in web design, for example, as book design, a point Pearson seemingly overlooks. The positive aspect of this oversight, however, is that, despite the second aim outlined above, Pearson does not dwell on the move away from print books in a digital age in a defensive or paranoid way. Instead, to his credit, Pearson points out that the world is always changing, and he compares the current digital revolution to the early modern revolution of the printing press over manuscript production (which Margaret Ezell, Patricia Fumerton, and other scholars remind us was anything but smooth and complete). Rather than dwelling on the change, Pearson instead expresses his sincere love of books and his belief in their continued relevance as a unique form.

Anyone who appreciates old books and has experienced the thrill of discovering centuries-old handwritten marginalia in a copy she was holding would likely agree with Pearson that books' importance extends beyond their content. …

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