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

Introduction

TOWARD A BOOK HISTORY OF
THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT

The Problem of Enlightenment Publishing

“To a man sincerely interested in the welfare of society and of his country it must be particularly agreeable to reflect on the rapid progress, and general diffusion of learning and civility which, within the present age, have taken place in Great Britain.” So began the preface to one of the most popular books of the late eighteenth century, A New Geographical, Historical, and Commercial Grammar; and Present State of the Several Kingdoms of the World by William Guthrie, Esq., first published in London in 1770. After contrasting the state of British political culture with that found in “some other kingdoms of Europe,” where “illiberal prejudices” prevailed, the preface continued: “Among us, learning is no longer confined within the schools of the philosophers, or the courts of the great; but, like all the greatest advantages which heaven has bestowed on mankind, it is become as universal as it is useful.” Britain was leading the way not only in the “rapid progress” of learning but also in its dissemination, for only in Britain had the “general diffusion of knowledge” advanced to the point where “the great body of the people” could share in it. This had happened, on the one hand, because “in Great Britain, the people are opulent, have great influence, and claim, of course, a proper share of attention”—which is to say, they constitute a public. On the other hand, in Britain “books have been divested of the terms of the schools, reduced from that size which suited only the purses of the rich, and the avocations of the studious, and are adapted to persons of more ordinary fortunes, whose attachment to other pursuits admitted of little leisure for those of knowledge.” The diffusion of learning through popular books is exalted, even over “the works of our

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