An Introduction to Book History

by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (Routledge, new ed. 2005): 160pp, £24.35 (pbk), ISBN 0 415 31443 7.

Reviewed by Ros Morley

Buy this book

Finkelstein and McCleery are here writing mainly about the study of book history, from oral traditions to the written word: print, publishing, authority, copyright laws, and readership, and ending with the future of the book.

From birth to death

The first chapter is a survey of the theory of print culture and book history studies. It looks back to the birth of the book, and suggests that the critics who predict its death are completely wrong.

We look at the move from oral communication to the hand-written, and are reminded that, in the beginning, books were intended to be read aloud because many people were illiterate. The arrival of the written word worried quite a few, who thought that it might bring with it forgetfulness and the loss of the ability to tell stories. But the high cost of these early books denied the majority any opportunity to own books themselves.

The transition from the hand-written word to print caused consternation among educated folk. In many cases, they had to be wary of the fact that texts were now available to literate cultures and that 'hidden knowledge' was no longer possible.

Printing and authors

A large section of this book has to do with the production and distribution of printed texts. And it examines the relationship between printing and social, cultural and political life – in particular, those great institutions of power: Church and state.

The study of authorship takes us from the medieval authors – mainly from ecclesiastical foundations – to those of the modern day. Authorship changed from the 15th century onwards, especially with the advent of print. The relationship between printers, publishers and patrons was of great consequence, and by the 18th century, the introduction of copyright laws gave authors greater rewards.

Extensive and intensive

Finkelstein and McCleery leave to their penultimate chapter what is possibly the most important area of book history: the reader. They claim that, until recently, the study of readers and reading has been somewhat neglected. Here they follow readers' move from dependence to independence – from reading as a very early individual activity to its social and educational role today. On the way, they look at how reading became popular in the 18th century, and how readers began to read extensively as well as (and perhaps instead of) intensively.

Much of the reading from this time on requires us, as readers, to use our own interpretations. Or, as Fish suggests in his article 'Is there a text in this class?' in The Book History Reader, edited by Finkelstein and McCleery in 1976, we now belong to 'interpretive communities'.

Exciting time

The future of the book is, of course, an ongoing discussion. Four main points arise from Finkelstein and McCleery's chapter that discusses this:

  • the effect on the book of new (and yet undiscovered) technologies
  • new structures in book publishing
  • the decline in the number of readers
  • the role of the state to support and encourage reading and publishing.

The authors think that this is an exciting time to be studying book history. They end with a series of questions that deal with such topics as: the path of books from producer to consumer; the cultural alliances that shape the promotion of particular texts; how authors become cultural touchstones; and the role of mass print media.

Unusual choice

After reading this book, I was tempted (although I did resist it) to immediately go to the website of a well-known bookseller (via the SfEP home page, of course) to buy some of these wonderful books: Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man and understanding media, although apparently the latter 'fell from favour' until McLuhan was proved right in predicting a networked electronic world.

Although Finkelstein and McCleery's book is a rather unusual choice for me to be reviewing for the SfEP – not my usual dictionary – I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the theory of book history. The first chapter seemed quite heavy and I almost sent it back, but I quickly began to find the theory and the study very interesting. Eventually I shall read it again in less rushed circumstances.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews