The Tangible Page

Leah Price

What exactly is book history? Literature students consulting their reference libraries would be hard put to find an answer: ‘history of the book’ appears nowhere in M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms or Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the names most ubiquitous in The Book History Reader, Roger Chartier and D.F. McKenzie, can be found on none of the new Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism’s several thousand pages.

Perhaps this is as it should be; to call book history a theory would be to read it against the grain. For many literary critics a decade ago, the study of texts’ production, circulation, and material form provided a last refuge from Poststructuralism. The irony was that the former faces the questions most central to the latter: what is an author? How do readers make meaning? What allows us to recognise literariness when we see it? Even the dowdiest subset of book historians – textual editors – share many of their working hypotheses with the very theorists who dismissed them as a service industry. Poststructuralism reinvented the articles of scepticism which the most conservative bibliographers had long taken for granted: the instability of the text, the inevitability of misreading, the impossibility of ascertaining authorial intention. (Much less honouring it: as one bibliographer pointed out in 1975, if anyone paid more than lip service to the author’s ‘final intentions’, to edit Virgil would mean destroying every extant copy of the Aeneid.) One of the virtues of The Book History Reader is that it brings such continuities to light, pairing Mark Rose’s densely particularised history of copyright law with Foucault and Barthes on authorship, or Janice Radway’s lovingly detailed reconstruction of the Book-of-the-Month Club’s marketing strategies with Stanley Fish’s aggressively perverse model of ‘interpretive communities’. The culture wars of the past decade were too often fought as if both sides assumed historicism to be the opposite of formalism – the latter disputed in turn between impractical theorists and practical critics who defined their object of study as ‘the words on the page’. The problem was that the second half of the phrase rarely rose above the metaphorical; it remained for book history to upstage the text (a sequence of ‘words’) with its tangible form (the ‘page’).

More to the point, it’s not clear that literature departments are the proper home for book history at all. Anyone walking through a library or classroom could be excused for thinking that literary history is by definition a history of books. But literary critics only use books; they study texts. One is a tangible object, the other a verbal structure. One exists in space, the other in minds. (‘If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre,’ one bibliographer not included in The Book History Reader asks, ‘where are Hamlet and Lycidas?’)

The origins of book history lie elsewhere: in the analytical bibliography developed by Anglo-American literary editors, the statistics on literacy rates compiled by French social historians, the biographies of authors and histories of publishing houses which later provided some cultural theorists with their raw material, and the social-science-fiction of visionaries like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan. Those strands have coalesced into a discipline only in the past few decades, through the publication of multi-volume national histories of the book (1982-86 in France, ongoing in Britain and elsewhere); through the efforts of a professional society with a prominent journal (Book History), a hyperactive discussion list (, and an overstuffed website (; and eventually through graduate programmes at institutions both unlikely (a former Methodist seminary in New Jersey) and overdetermined (the University of Reading).

But if post-colonialism and women’s studies are anything to go by, no academic discipline can really be said to have arrived until it receives the final mark of legitimacy: a Routledge Reader. At a time when library budget cuts have left the supply of original academic monographs without any corresponding demand, collections of republished essays sell: The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, The Latino Studies Reader, The Science Studies Reader, The Green Studies Reader, The Disability Studies Reader, The Language and Cultural Studies Reader. Routledge has dibs on the definite article: their Cultural Studies Reader should not be confused with the knockoff What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader, any more than Edwin Arnold’s The Media Studies Reader should with NYU’s Media Studies: A Reader, let alone Arnold’s own Approaches to Media: A Reader. But anyone trying to tell Blackwell’s Masculinity Studies Reader apart from Polity’s Masculinities Reader can only be grateful that the three publishers fighting over The Media Reader have left Prentice-Hall searching a thesaurus for The Media Casebook, while Sage spins around the colon to distinguish Culture and Power: A Media, Culture & Society Reader from Media, Culture and Society: A Critical Reader. For the benefit of anyone who hadn’t picked up on the family resemblance, Finkelstein and McCleery call their anthology of ‘book history studies’ ‘a vital resource for all those studying cultural studies, library studies, and book publishing studies’. This is a book in which suffixes dangle as precariously as modifiers.

The symbiosis of ‘studies’ with Readers should provide a thesis topic for some future book historian. In retrospect, Routledge’s invention looks as epochal as that of movable type or sliced bread. No longer do students have to swallow uncut scholarship that can be more digestibly sandwiched with editorial introductions; no longer do tutors have to dictate quotations to a roomful of bored note-takers, or handcraft minuscule batches of coursepacks on the photocopier. The secret is ventriloquism: Routledge mapped out new fields not through an omniscient narrator’s homogenised summary of successive scholars’ ‘thought’, but rather by plunging readers directly into the original texts. No free indirect discourse here: what Readers supply isn’t thought, but voice. More crassly, they supply sales. Reprinting excerpts from already-published books rather than taking a gamble on newly commissioned essays, these collections keep academic presses afloat. Presses, but also disciplines. American academics worry that universities are outsourcing their personnel judgments to the publishing industry (tenure depends less on whether the department likes a candidate’s manuscript than whether a publisher does); it’s less often noticed that entire fields stand or fall by the same criteria. For subjects invented in the 1960s, such as women’s studies, a university degree programme was the stamp of approval. These days, it takes a Reader.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in