History of the Book: An Undisciplined Discipline?

By Clegg, Cyndia Susan | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

History of the Book: An Undisciplined Discipline?


Clegg, Cyndia Susan, Renaissance Quarterly


Elizabeth Eisenstein's observation in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe that the western world would have to wait a "a full century after Gutenberg before the outlines of a new world picture begin to emerge into view" (1:33) necessarily locates originary studies of the cultural implications of printing and books in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and accounts for the visible presence of studies on "print culture" among recent publications in Renaissance studies. It is perhaps some measure of the degree to which printing has transformed culture that we had to wait a mere twenty years after the publication of Eisenstein's monumental study for the new academic discipline awkwardly called the "history of the book" to emerge. The past few years have seen an impressive output of significant (and some not so significant) books in this area. These studies I consider here suggest the vitality and viability as well as the inherent intractability of the history of the book as a "discipline." One measure of the degree of energy with which the study of the book has been pursued is how readily it has expanded from regarding only printing to embracing Eisenstein's broader category of "Communications and Cultural Transformat ions," a disciplinary transformation that has made "the history of the book" the best possible appellation for what in its various avatars has been termed more precisely "print culture studies," "the history of material texts," "literacy studies," "the history of reading," and "publishing history" (to name but a few). The titles and secondary titles of some of the books considered here (The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England; Reading and Writing in Seventeenth-Century England; Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England; Drama and Authorship in Early Modern England; Print and Knowledge in the Making; Literature and the Politics of the Printing Press; and Catholicism, Gender and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture) underscore the range of topics that may be subsumed into the study of the history of the book -- reading, print, authorship, and drama (because its legacy survived only in print, as one of these studies argues).

Robert Darnton's 1982 essay, "What is the History of Books?" (Daedalus 3: 65-83), which registered the emergence of the history of the book as a new discipline, is often regarded as a founding document for the field of study. From Darnton's perspective, the discipline emerged when the interests of scholars from several disciplines (literary studies, sociology, bibliography, library science, and history) became focused on printing's impact on social and cultural history. The creation in 1991 of SHARP (the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing), the professional association dedicated to the history of the book, registers the expansion of interest in the field from "print culture" to questions of reading, authorship, and other forms of publication. SHARP'S website offers a useful definition of the history of the book, which, it says,

is not only about books per se: broadly speaking, it concerns the creation, dissemination, and reception of script and print, including newspapers, periodicals, and ephemera. Book historians study the social, cultural, and economic history of authorship; the history of the book trade, copyright, censorship, and underground publishing; the publishing histories of particular literary works, authors, editors, imprints, and literary agents; the spread of literacy and book distribution; canon formation and the politics of literary criticism; libraries, reading habits, and reader response. (http://www.indiana.edu/[sim]sharp/)

In 1998 SHARP launched its journal, Book History, which met with the Council of Editors of Learned Journals' acclaim. Book History's policy of considering for publication work on any literary culture or historical period, using any methodology and representing all disciplines reiterates the vision of SHARP and Darnton that studies in the history of the book are necessarily interdisciplinary. …

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