Book History as a Sub-Division of History

Book history is no more than the latest minor sub-division of history; after an initial flurry of excitement it will find a similar level of importance as the history of medicine or the history of ideas. Discuss. (Yes, the stuff from this post was originally submitted as a piece of coursework.) 

There’s a lot that can be learned from studying the book as a material object. Books — in all of their formats, from cuneiform tablets to digital texts — have served, and continue to serve, as points of convergence for otherwise-disparate scholarly disciplines, fields of work, and personal perspectives. While some people may deem book history to be “the latest minor sub-division of history,” it’s more aptly described as a broad lens through which to view history, as a potential focal point for scholars to make sense of, and find meaning in, greater historical contexts. Other sub-divisions of history, such as the histories of medicine and ideas, have also served as focal points for meaning-making in historical study, but have become so engrained in contemporary historiography that they are now seldom studied as distinct fields. Book history still faces its initial flurry of excitement. Ideally, though, it’ll someday find a similar level of importance as the histories of medicine and ideas, which have both become recognized as integral aspects of comprehensive historical study. However, book history’s emphasis on materiality could prevent the field from ever dissolving into general historiography as the histories of medicine and ideas have.

Books embody both historical and contemporary instances of meaning-making. I define acts of meaning-making as instances in which people apply their own worldviews to the production or use of something to continue making sense of the world around them. Recognition of such acts is invaluable to historical study, as these acts add humanity to otherwise dehumanised contexts; Kathleen Haney even declares that “history results from human meaning-making acts that produce narratives about human meaning-making acts.” Here, I yield to both Haney’s and E.H. Carr’s definitions of history. History, Carr writes, “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” The study of history is important because “the past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past.” Studying history, with an emphasis on interactive analysis of human meaning-making acts, can thereby help us make sense of our current human condition. Studying book history more particularly, with an emphasis on books embodying narratives about human meaning-making acts, is therefore fundamentally an act of contemporary meaning-making. While numerous book historians have already alluded to the direct access their field has to acts of meaning-making, these scholars have failed to explicitly identify this connection, thereby neglecting to make clear precisely why book history is worthy of the excitement surrounding it. In other words, they don’t tell us why we should care.

History comprises countless sub-divisions, including the histories of medicine and ideas and the history of books. Recognizing sub-divisions divides the otherwise seemingly-all-encompassing “history” into more manageable portions, which can facilitate meaning-making and offer scholars opportunities for specialization. Book history in particular emerged as an official sub-division in response to several disciplines’ common problems regarding historical and contemporary processes of communication. While the field has really existed as long as books themselves have existed, “book history” is relatively new; scholars cite Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s 1958 L’apparition du livre [The Coming of the Book] for the first use of the phrase l’histoire du livre [the history of the book] as we understand it today. The histories of medicine and ideas are also both quite new sub-divisions of history, emerging around the early-twentieth century. The recent creations of sub-divisions of history could be in response to greater societal emphases on systemization and the general desire to organize information in ways that make it meaningful in light of contemporary worldviews. But I’m not sure. Just a guess.

However, sub-dividing history can be dangerous. Writing in 1982, Robert Darnton, one of my academic crushes, suggested that book history was becoming a hodgepodge of other fields rather than maintaining its distinctiveness. To contour the field’s boundaries, Darnton proposed a model to distinguish the various parties involved in book production and use so they could be studied individually, but still in relation to a greater system. Darnton’s model remains frequently cited, since it provides scholars with one potential order for the otherwise convoluted processes of book production and use. And yeah, such an order facilitates meaning-making and comprehensive analysis of books as meaning-making narratives. However, such a model presents book history as a closed circuit, implying that books can be removed from their greater contexts. In studying such specific fields as the history of the book or the histories of medicine and ideas, it’s easy — even tempting — to fall into a trap of irrelevance, wherein one fails to situate one’s particular study into its greater context. “Too many [book historians] have been content to dig their own small patch, without surveying the whole landscape beyond,” Thomas R. Adams and Nicolas Barker write. “There is a need for integration.” A book doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s a “product of human agency in complex and highly volatile contexts which a responsible scholarship must seek to recover if we are to understand better the creation and communication of meaning as the defining characteristic of human societies.” Books are embodiments of meaning; people embed their own worldviews in a book during their involvements in its production and use. Because a book serves as a point of convergence for various groups, book history is inherently interdisciplinary and can never truly be studied in isolation.

Although historians of medicine and ideas may declare particular tangible artifacts to be valuable to their fields, studies of the histories of medicine and ideas don’t  generally depend on these artifacts. Contrarily, book history is a material study, heavily dependent on sensory observations. Book history’s emphasis on materiality doesn’t make it any more or less valuable than the histories of medicine and ideas, but rather raises unique issues regarding its inclusion in general historiography. Ideally, book history will one day find a similar level of importance as the histories of medicine and ideas; these sub-divisions have become deeply woven into general historical study. Book history, though, doesn’t blend in so easily. It’s dependent on personal interactions with material objects. Through such interactions, one comes to make sense of, and find meaning in, the objects in light of one’s unique perspective. However, not everyone who wishes to use these materials is granted access to them; preservation measures, physical location, and collection restrictions all must be taken into consideration. Historians of medicine and ideas, though, don’t necessarily face these access-related issues as regularly as book historians. Hence, while book history will hopefully one day become as engrained in historiography as the histories of medicine and ideas have, there remain issues of access that will continue to distinguish this sub-division from others.

“History” is divided into sub-divisions that make an otherwise overwhelming study more manageable, thereby facilitating contemporary meaning-making while engaging with meaning-making acts from the past. Nonetheless, book history, like the histories of medicine and ideas, engages countless other sub-divisions of history, as well as other fields of study more generally. It is inherently interdisciplinary, as one book may serve as a point of convergence for a nearly infinite number of meanings determined by anyone involved in its production or use. We should hope that book history sees a similar fate as the histories of medicine and ideas, which have both become so woven into general historiography that they are nearly forgotten as distinct sub-divisions. However, access-related issues will prevent book history from fully following suit. Book history’s flurry of excitement may dwindle, but the field will remain distinct.

Let’s just hope that book historians begin telling us why we should care.


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