It was a cold winter morning in the 1980s when I sat in my kitchen, reading the book contract I had just received. I’d already done a couple of books with academic presses, but this was my first trade venture, and the contract was more complex. I chuckled over the clauses about movie and television rights, but then came upon a section that stopped me in my tracks. The contract required me to affirm that everything I wrote in the book was true.
How could I sign such a document? After years as a university professor, I knew how elusive truth can be. How could a publishing house require an oath that anyone with the slightest knowledge of epistemology would be loath to take?
The answer lay deep in the history of publishing. That history has shaped our conception of authorship and, derivatively, of literacy more generally. In this chapter, we’ll track the emergence of the idea of an author and of a reader.
A painter is someone who paints. An actor is someone who acts. A writer, it would follow, is someone who writes. And an author? That one’s not so simple. The noun came, through Old Norman French, from the Latin auctor, meaning a promoter, originator, or, not surprisingly, author. The word in English refers both to a person who writes a book and to someone who “originates or makes” (Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary, 1965). John Milton, John Locke, and Jane Austen qualify as authors, but so does God.