Old Books and New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture

AuthorLeslie Howsam
FinishedMay 01, 2020
Rating3.0 / 5

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  • Three major scholarly approaches to history and culture of the book view book as different phenomena: literary studies (book as written text), bibliography (book as material object), and history (book as a cultural transaction)
  • What is the book? Not just limited to print
    • Manuscripts, print, digital, scrolls
    • "This vast scope and these blurred boundaries mean that no one can ever be an expert on all its aspects" (3)
  • History (Ludmilla Jordanova) is "not a body of knowledge at all, but rather 'an abstract idea with many meanings'" (11)
    • "What happened in a particular place, or to a particular group; they contemplate why those events matter, and how things change over time"
  • QUESTION: What are the different "units of analysis" we wish to save or archive?
    • Is data one unit? What is data?
  • Each "reading" is a new text, a new "engagement session (like 1 Facebook scrolling session?) ... a new performance
    • "New readers of course make new texts, and that their new meanings are a function of their new forms" (15) (D. F. McKenzie)
  • For historians, a lot of the evidence used to reconstruct the past "serves much better to describe the actions of long-dead persons than to tell us why and with what degree of insight they performed them" (22) (Allan)
    • WHAT do we want to save? The result (ends) or the process (means)... and how?
  • Different versions of books are very different
    • Version control of books
    • @Music: Programmatic performances... Composers changed versions often. Which edition? Conductor's influence on instrumentation, style
    • Ex: We play Bach now with modern instruments. Is this a new pice, same pice? New VERSION but not yet evolved to a new species?
    • What about jazz and improvisation or variations of well known songs?
  • Book history as the "cultural history of communication by print ... because its purpose is to understand how ideas were transmitted through print..." (29) (Darnton)
  • What do we put at the center if inquiry? Books as objects, books as abstract ideas, human activity, abstract concepts of discourse and communication? (35)
  • Centrality of agency, power, experience
    • "The historian construes the book in terms that have to do with communication, knowledge, and culture than with either text or document/object ... The abstract nature of this conceptualization..." (47)
    • For bibliographers: "The question of WHO endows the object with its form, and the extent to which the perpetrator intend the meaning which the recipients perceive" (48)
  • INTERESTING: Oral cultures more democratic than writing (Harold Innis) → what about internet? (49)
  • Eisenstein: Technology determines meaning by creating textual stability
    • Technology as the agent of change
  • Burke: "It might be more realistic to view print, like new media in later centuries, as a catalyst, assisting social changes rather than originating them" (51)
  • COMMUNITY: Rather than using national boundaries, maybe we can think of "People who read the same text, whether a newspaper or a novel, especially if they read it at around the same time, are in a sense constituting themselves as a community..." (58) (Benedict Anderson)
  • "To historicize authorship is to contemplate how concepts of the value and ownership of literary property change over time" (63)
    • Words and letters are discrete objects symbolizing abstract themes of thoughts in my head
    • Discrete skeleton for a continuous reality but with which we can construct and reconstruct
    • Archaeological fossil or skeleton remains... what can we deduce from the remains
  • Mutability and malleable nature of the printed word (68)
    • books were never immutable discrete ONE VERSION objects
    • "simultaneously fixed, and yet endlessly mobile" (69)
    • "Literary works are not fixed but are, rather, unstable and problematic from the start" (70) (Paul Eggert)
    • "The variability over time and space of any given work" (70) (Leah Marcus)
    • "The idea of textual instability" as profoundly disquieting (Leah Marcus)
      • BUT on the contrary, generation growing up with Internet feel less unease (71)
  • Is Literary History Possible? (David Perkins)
    • Literary history is not really possible to write in a way that is plausible
    • "To be plausible the history of a literature would have to represent that literature's past existence, and at the same time explain its genesis and influence... " (73)
    • The question is not whether literary history can be written, but rather "Whether the discipline can be intellectually respectable" (73)
    • Is book history possible?
    • "Inherent limitations, similar to those for literary history, include the difficulties of capturing the book's materiality in a past culture and simultaneously explaining where it came from and how its influence worked" (73)
      • EVEN NOW
      • How can we capture material and message of big data to explain to the future

Notes and Thoughts

  • Who has the agency and the power? Though a decentralized archive can we do what we have never done before and democratize the agency?
  • Performance