Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

What Is a Book?: The Study of Early Printed Books

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

What Is a Book?: The Study of Early Printed Books

Article excerpt

Joseph A. Dane, What Is a Book?: The Study of Early Printed Books (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). xvi+276pp. ISBN 978 0 2680 2609 7.

The question 'what is a book?' is Joseph Dane's primary concern in this at once introductory and invaluable study of early printed books. In his attempt to answer this question, however, Dane raises other ones: for example, 'what is a book-copy?' 'And who', Dane asks, 'is it that can tell just what these things are? (p. 2). This book, with its many examples and lavish illustrations (forty in total), reveals that Joseph Dane is well placed to tell us. A crucial distinction that Dane maintains throughout this study is the difference between the abstract concept of the book and the actual material book-copy - that is, the physical object that exists in time and space, the material book that one can sell, read, annotate, rebind, etc. It is precisely this attention to, on the one hand, the idealised book and, on the other, the book as cultural artefact that distinguishes Dane's work from the many recent publication on the materiality of the book (printed during the period of the hand press). In other words, Dane does well to foreground not only the productions of books but also their dissemination, reception, cataloguing, reproduction, etc. Another distinguishing feature of this study is its heightened attention to methodology: 'What', Dane asks early on, 'are the methods scholars of books use in studying material books, and what are the implications of these methods on our understanding of what books are and do?' (p. 2). If Dane's book supplies a fine examination, indeed interrogation, of these methods, it also offers a remarkable reflection on the implications of these methods.

Dane's study is divided into two parts: part one attends to what Dane terms the elements of material books (size, materials, mechanics of the press, page format and layout, typography, illustrations); part two explores the history of books and the histories of book-copies (bindings, marginalia, provenance, enumerative and descriptive bibliography, facsimiles, as well as electronic books and databases). Dane tells us that he has organised his book 'around familiar issues in bibliography' (p. 12); however, the strength of this book is its ability to familiarise readers with integral concepts as well as to defamiliarise readers by challenging received and cherished narratives. …

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