Book history is about more than just books. In order to understand how a book influences, or is influenced by, its social surroundings, we have to understand that book’s context, which tells us who contributed time/effort/money to the book’s production. And, you know, all that other fun stuff.
The first time I ever really thought about this kind of thing was in my second-year Bibliography & Print Culture course when we were presented with Robert Darnton’s Communication Circuit. Here it is, so you can get a feel for what I’m talking about:
Darnton not only acknowledges the people involved in book production but also the the social circumstances in which books are produced. Note how in this diagram the circumstantial stuff is in the middle, and is surrounded by production’s key players.
Now take a look at this other diagram, which Adams and Barker crafted in response to Darnton a decade later:
In this diagram the circumstantial stuff is on the outside as opposed to in the middle, implying that social circumstances have more influence on book production than the people involved do. In Darnton’s diagram the people aren’t being contained by the circumstances in which they’re working; in Adams and Barker’s they are. More generally, Darnton emphasizes the people involved in a book’s production, while Adams and Barker emphasize the book itself and the processes in which it undergoes as it is being made.
Another key difference between the diagrams is Adams and Barker’s inclusion of the “survival” aspect of the book. Darnton recognizes readers but he does not acknowledge that one book can have many generations of readers, and that readers may interpret the same text in very different ways.
For example, think about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. When it was first published in 1813 readers would have consumed the text by reading it in book-form. There are still hard copy books available today, but now we can get a digital copy of Pride and Prejudice for free online at Project Gutenberg. There are also audio books, theatre productions, and films that present the same text in unique ways. The ways in which the text may be consumed have changed; this is important because how one consumes a text is believed by some to influence how one perceives it.
Even if the method of consumption doesn’t influence how a reader perceives a text, the reader’s familiarity with the setting of the text sure does. As Pride and Prejudice is set in the early 19th century, readers in 1813 would have related more with its setting than present-day readers might. This isn’t to say that that modern readers can’t appreciate the text; as you’ve no doubt noticed, Pride and Prejudice continues to enjoy an avid following. I mean, think of all of those “I ♥ MR. DARCY” tote bags floating around. People still enjoy Austen’s work and its characters, but they enjoy it for different reasons than the 1813 audience did. To use Adams and Barker’s term, the book has “survived” because readers continue to find meaning in it, even though social circumstances change.
If you want to know more about these communications diagrams, the guy who writes Function Follows Forme has a pretty good summary of Adams and Barker’s article, which I’ve referenced in this post. There’s a lot of other interesting stuff on his website too, so poke around if you have some spare time.