Devouring the pangolin

John Sutherland

  • The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History by Robert Darnton
    Faber, 393 pp, £25.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 14423 3

Robert Darnton’s reputation was founded on his monumental The Business of Enlightenment (1979). In this study of ‘the life-cycle of a single book’ Darnton tracked the creation, manufacture, distribution and reception of the fourth edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1775-1800. His account drew on the archive of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, on the Franco-Swiss border. Using this material with great skill, Darnton was able to narrate what was involved in making and importing (sometimes smuggling) a subversive book into France in the Revolutionary era. He expertly digested the technicalities of the 18th-century printing trade, the historical-political background, and summarised a wealth of information into graph and tabular form. What kept the book from the fatal dryness of most economic history was the author’s gift for animating detail. At every point, Darnton seemed able to extract a human interest angle from his manuscript sources. He had, as reviewers noted, a novelist’s eye and a novelist’s power of evocation. Noting the prim engravings of the printing shop to be found in the Encyclopédie itself, Darnton observed that

real printing shops were dirty, loud and unruly – and so were real printers. The presses creaked and groaned. The ink balls, filled with wool soaked in urine, gave off a fierce stench. And the men waded about in filthy paper, swilling wine, banging their composing sticks against the type cases for the sheer joy of making noise, bellowing and brawling as opportunities arose, and tormenting the apprentices with practical jokes.

One of the revelations in the present collection is that Darnton began his career not as an academic historian but as a crime reporter on the New York Times. The training stuck. He retains the newshound’s trick of grabbing the reader. I wonder, too, how much the above description owes to the pre-computerised New York Times newsroom.

The Business of Enlightenment is the most satisfying study that the new specialism of publishing history has produced. But as a model for others it poses difficulties. Booktrade materials are mostly very boring. Very few books are as obviously historically significant as Diderot’s was in the late 18th century, nor do they have as excitingly subversive careers. The average book is an article of commerce. Moreover, there are dauntingly many of these articles of commerce – 50,000 new titles a year, half a million titles in print, ten million or more stored in the copyright libraries. Even following the career of a single edition of a single book, as Darnton did, required a huge investment of scholarly time: 14 years as he reckoned. Most academics want a quicker return than this. As careers are rewarded nowadays, they need a quicker return.

In the abstract, and given a degree of teamwork, the task of writing a comprehensive history of the national book – English, French or whatever – is well within the realm of possibility. As a task, it would be rather less onerous than star-mapping or the human genome project (which will require identifying three billion base pairs, at $1 a shot). But the sponsorship for the task is not there. Publishing History has no departmental or disciplinary home in the academic enterprise. Bibliography, History and Literature all own an interest; none will pick up the bills. State-sponsored centres of the book (such as that projected at the new British Library) will help, but they will be at best places where the work can be done rather than paying patrons.

As long ago as 1959, William Charvat came to the reluctant conclusion that a comprehensive history of publishing was a mirage. What we would have to live with was a provisional and largely intuitive sense of the big picture, together with detailed accounts of the manufacture, distribution and reception of the handful of great works that compose the current literary canon. Publishing History, that is, would have to make the same compromise as departments of English which select fifty or so texts from the millions available and label them ‘literature’. Higher educational syllabuses are no more a generic account of literature than a Desert Island Discs selection is a history of music. But we live quite happily with the compromise.

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[*] A conference on the Renaissance book in Britain, one of a series devoted to the preparation of the Cambridge project, will be held on 7-9 December at the University of Warwick.