Academic journal article Journalism History

Perspectives on American Book History: Artifacts and Commentary

Academic journal article Journalism History

Perspectives on American Book History: Artifacts and Commentary

Article excerpt

Casper, Scott E., Joanne D. Chaison, and Jeffrey D. Groves, eds. Perspectives on American Book History: Artifacts and Commentary. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002. 461 pp. and CD-ROM. $24.95.

Book history is one of the newest fields in the humanities, and it has established itself with remarkable speed. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), founded in 1991, has built up a membership of 1,200, bringing together scholars of history, literature, journalism, communications, librarianship, publishing, art, sociology, religion, and American studies. They have swiftly created the apparatus of a recognized discipline: journals, graduate programs, and a monograph series.

But for all that, undergraduate courses in the history of the book have been slow to develop, and the reason is painfully obvious. For too long book historians have been held back by the lack of a basic comprehensive textbook. Now they finally have one, and it is superb. It is pitched at a level at which it could serve equally well as an introductory text for an MA course or the main text for a junior college course.

Perspectives on American Book History can add a broad new dimension to classes in journalism history and book history, because its scope extends well beyond journals and books perse. It understands the word "book" to include any type of written or printed document, including almanacs, bookplates, stamps, banknotes, letters, telegrams, cartoons, government and military forms, playing cards, scrapbooks, maps, deeds, stock certificates, engravings, broadsides, dime novels, sheet music, and advertisements as well as newspapers and magazines. All of them shaped and reflected American society: they were used to communicate, inform, persuade, entertain, sell, invest, and enforce. A lot of fascinating social history can be extracted from the artifacts reproduced in this volume: Puritan tracts and Indian bibles, readers' diaries and publishers' records, literary magazines and ethnic presses, Book-of-the-Month Club advertisements and underground newspapers, and Civil War ephemera from both sides (including, memorably, a Confederate Army passport issued to slaves. …

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