In the fictional work The Last Witchfinder (2006), during a moment of self-reflection the book’s narrator—also a book, in this case Newton’s Principia Mathematica—claims that “unlike you humans, a book always remembers its moment of conception” (3). When I initially read this metafictional statement, it seemed to harmonise with the start of my analysis of Australian publication data that I agreed with it quite easily. Now, a few years into my research, I have come to realise that remembering (or, more accurately, tracing) the moment of a book’s conception entails a good deal more than relying on the book / object itself for all the necessary clues. Certainly, the inside page of a book can be a starting point where a title’s publication genealogy might be unpacked from those bibliographic codes usually considered insignificant by the average reader (publisher, printer, typeface, place of publication, year published, etc). But, as Stuart Hall argued (in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1994), 392), “we all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and culture which is specific” and any publication or written effort, despite the literary, empirical or archival features employed, will ultimately in some manner be a projection of its own contemporary historical and cultural demands.
Literary Cultures and the Material Book is one recent ambitious projection and is part of a contemporary movement that, through documentary and textual research, contributes to new understandings in the study of books, in this instance examining the historical demands of other eras that have produced texts and readers in one form or another. Literary Cultures is a book about books, not in a metafictional sense like James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder but rather as a serious transmission of high quality research and theory. It is an exceptional companion to anyone studying book history, situating an “account of both the cultural and the material” (377) origins of books in a “much broader, international context” (1) while examining the “reciprocal exchange between the processes of creation, production, distribution, copying and reading of texts” (26).
However, unlike other book histories, Literary Cultures’ thought is not positioned solely within a western tradition and it begins rather unconventionally by: exploring the connections between the material book and literary cultures in tenth-century China (Glen Dudbridge); the influence of performance culture on the printed text in nineteenth-century Africa (Isabel Hofmeyr); the illustrated epic Shahnama in medieval Iran (Robert Hillenbrand); the marketing of the eleventh-century Tale of Genji in Japan (Peter Kornicki); and the impact of writing on Sanskrit literary culture in pre-colonial India (Sheldon Pollock). Section two re-introduces the western book into history by “looking at the impact that the evolution of material texts had on literary culture of Europe: from Greece in eighth-seventh century BCE to Russia in the nineteenth century, by way of the Carolingian Empire, Petrarch’s book collection and printing and publishing in sixteenth-century Venice” (3). With an emphasis on how publics come into being: Brian Richardson investigates how the relationship “between book history and the history of Italian literary culture … [might] involve influences that work in both directions” (185), focussing in particular on Pietro Bembo; Christopher Carey examines collective identity in the Homeric poems and their status as texts; David Ganz reviews the achievements of ninth-century Carolingian book production; Abram Reitblat and Christine Thomas observe the emergence of a readership for Russian literature through “the mushrooming number of almanacs, which published new literature and connected new writers with new readers” (203); and Nicholas Mann, in regards Petrarca, considers the intimate relationships between the books an author owns and the books an author writes. (For “books … cannot be viewed as mere merchandise; scholars should think of their contents rather than their price. Unlike other material goods … which give superficial pleasure, books are almost living entities which delight us to our marrow … insinuating themselves into our minds and suggesting the names of other books to us, creating something like a virtuous circle of literary desire.”, 164).
The third section discusses language empires with a view of the “material book as a vector in the promotion … of French, Spanish and German-based literary cultures through Europe” (3) with a range of articles on France (Jean-Yves Mollier, François Vallotton, Jacques Michon), Spain (Clive Griffin, María Luisa López-Vidriero, Jean François Botrel); and Germany (Bernhard Fabian, Frédéric Barbier). For Australian and New Zealand readers, the fourth section in Literary Cultures takes its argument to the USA (Michael Winship appraising who reads an American book), Canada (Janet B. Friskney on the United Church Publishing House and its general trade arm, The Ryerson Press), the 1940 New Zealand Centennial publications (with Stephen J. Shep asking if typography is a performance of cultural identity and nationalistic imperatives) and Australia (through John Barnes strongly questioning the commonly-held view that Australian writers were unappreciated and resisted by London publishers). Literary London is also surveyed: in the seventeenth century by John Barnard (“Reprinting is, of course, a necessary precondition for all canon formation”, 308); in inter-war Britain by Andrew Nash (with a focus on publisher Chatto and Windus); and in the late nineteenth century by Richard Landon (in looking at the career of Richard Garnett). The final essay by David McKitterick asks “to what extent is it possible to write authoritatively about any national history of the book, without transgressing national boundaries” (417)?
Given the breadth of scholarship, my only criticism, to tie in with my opening comment, would be that the book does not turn its considerable insight back in on itself; that is, to examine Literary Cultures’ own “moment of conception” as a published material product. This may seem a rather peculiar, even facetious observation to make but such an activity, given the deeply rich theoretical reserves contained within this book, would have certainly put into play, in a self-reflexive present-day context, some of the work’s more penetrating thoughts on its own publishing strategies and their historical antecedents. I raise this issue because as more and more texts on book history are being published, these as objects themselves make little reference to their own intersection into contemporary book history (beyond the usual publisher and reviewer magnification of their importance and contribution to the field under discussion, of which even this review participates). Literary Cultures prompts me to ask how such texts go about their own business in creating historical agency on book publishing and how the creation of such history might be collapsed into our contemporary demands for book histories which reflect the shifting patterns of colonisation, trade agreement monopolies, modern concerns over the cartelisation of copyrights, fair use practices and intellectual property regimes, language empires and the “development of international preferences for [certain] languages” (420), increasingly deregulated markets, and the role of national, international and transnational publishers.
If all “books are judged by their manufacture as well as by their content, and that the two are inseparable” (422), then some questions Literary Cultures might have considered in an opening or closing chapter, with close reference to its own arguments, are: To which literary culture and in what literary community is this book especially made for? Which readers are to be “influenced by the nature of … [this] material text in its material context”? (26) For example, why was this edition of Literary Cultures published in cloth hardback and not, say, paperback if “the physical form taken by the text, that is … [the] construction of the book … [and] the materials from which it is made” (31), can instruct users on how to properly respond to it? Why was this form of solemn presentation considered more appropriate over a cheaper mass market format? If “the canonical power of the anthology lies in the claims it makes—implicit or explicit—to being representative” (20), what might this say about the format and selection of the thirty “short, incisive essays” (xvi) within this book? Why is Literary Cultures published on paper that is difficult to notate in the margins with pencil, almost forcing the printed text within to remain unadulterated by the student scholar? Is this use of the book’s materiality deliberate in order to suggest a “textual or canonical authority” which is accessible like a library catalogue but not modifiable below the institutional level? After all, “contexts of consumption can in turn shape the uses to which the text is put” (9). Does the high price then configure this book as perhaps a Bourdieun “product of privilege”, magnifying its canonical status and cultural value by raising it out of the reach of “the profane mob” (15) and into the institutional purse / audience? What public is brought into being through the circulation of Literary Cultures and to what “circle of literary desire” (164) does it insinuate itself (besides Amazon’s impulse-buying calculations behind “Customers Who Bought/Viewed This Item Also Bought/ Viewed”)? As “the history of the book cannot be contained within the boundary markers familiar in the West” (xvi), is Literary Cultures available in languages other than English, particular for those non-Anglophone nations which become its subjects: Spain, Russia, Japan, Africa, etc?
Overall, Literary Cultures and the Material Book is a highly stimulating global engagement with the historical demands leading to the production of books in other periods and cultures, which prompts the mild need for an awareness of its own historical conditions of publication as part of the very trajectories it interrogates, where “every point which concerns this material form should be carefully and thoroughly investigated” (357). Academic works do not sit outside their objects of study and books do not simply “bear witness” (26) on behalf of their authors’ disciplines; Literary Cultures and the Material Book, though magnificent in provoking challenging approaches to thinking about book history, silently possesses (as all books must) many of the qualities and publishing strategies of those other works examined under its microscope. Nonetheless, that “we interpret, inevitably, from the present, and the present necessarily informs our account of a past that cannot speak for itself” (Catherine Belsey, “Reading Cultural History”, in Reading the Past: Literature and History (2000), 111) should not dissuade book historians from the attempt to provide clear, well-documented accounts and conceptual tools for further analysis. Fortunately, the contributors to Literary Cultures and the Material Book succeed in these aims, making this text a welcome addition to my own slowly expanding collection of books about books.
SOURCE: Ensor, J 2008, ‘Review: Simon Eliot, Andrew Nash and Ian Willison, eds., Literary Cultures and the Material Book, London: The British Library, 2007. pp. xix + 444. ISBN 978 07123 0684 3(hardcover)’, Script & Print, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 185-89.