Pens and Heads

Blair Worden

  • The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns
    Chicago, 707 pp, £14.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 226 40122 7
  • Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England by Kevin Sharpe
    Yale, 358 pp, £25.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 300 08152 9

‘We Should Note,’ Francis Bacon enjoined in his Novum Organum, ‘the force, effect, and consequence’ of three inventions which were unknown to the ancients, ‘namely, printing, gunpowder and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.’ Since Bacon’s time almost everyone has agreed that the social and cultural impact of printing must have been huge. Only in the past half century, however, has it begun to be studied and measured. The movement of enquiry began in France in the 1950s, when the Annales school counted print runs and estimated the breadth and social composition of readerships. More recently, the ‘history of the book’, as it has come to be called, has assumed less statistical, more subtle and more intensive forms.

This enterprise, which belongs among the striking advances made by social history over the past three decades, has had one advantage over its neighbours. It started with a ready-made scholarly base. The technicalities of bibliography and book-production have long been studied, often with the aim of separating authentic from corrupt texts of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. On that foundation there has been built what the late Don McKenzie, a leading inspiration in the history of the book, called ‘the sociology of texts’. Scholars have inspected habits of reading and writing; standards of literacy; the emergence of modern conceptions of authorship; the relationship between élite and popular literature; the distinctions and overlaps between a ‘manuscript culture’ and a ‘print culture’.

These two long books are contributions to this movement. Adrian Johns’s is very long, for he has a great deal to cover. The Nature of the Book displays a breadth of insight and of learning astonishing in a work produced in early career. There is no mistaking its stature or importance. Yet the work is exceptionally difficult to describe. Johns alludes repeatedly and confidently to its scope and purpose and direction, only to leave a reader less wise than himself. Reading him can be an unnerving experience, rather like travelling with a taxi-driver who gives every indication of knowing what he’s doing but who for some reason seems to be taking one round the houses. It may be that The Nature of the Book is most rewardingly approached not in the hope of finding a coherent thesis in it but as a miscellany of essays, or perhaps as an attempt to write too many interesting books at once.

Johns’s starting-point is indignation. He is provoked by the only thorough survey of the impact of printing to have been written, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (published in 1979 and abridged as The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe in 1983). Eisenstein argued – though less insistently than Johns’s criticisms might suggest – that one consequence of the printing revolution was the standardisation, systematisation and certainty of knowledge. So long as there were only manuscripts, intellectual propositions could circulate only in various, frequently corrupted forms. Books provided not only larger readerships but a common frame of intellectual reference.

As Johns sees it, Renaissance and 17th-century books had none of the authority or ‘fixity’ that Eisenstein claimed for them. At least until the 19th century, he thinks, books presented as many problems to readers as manuscripts had. Piracy and plagiarism were rife. Readers had no way of knowing whether the author whose name was attached to a book would have accepted responsibility for its contents. For Johns, the intellectual history of the early modern period – especially the history of scientific ideas, which is the largest of his many interests – is a series of contests for the aura of reliability: of battles fought not merely between competing claims of the mind but for control of the press. Ideas prevailed not, or not only, because of their innate superiority but because they had literary patrons or printing-houses or censors on their side.

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