Spotlight: Elizabeth Eisenstein

Eisenstein, Elizabeth.jpg

Elizabeth Eisenstein, wearing a shirt that I’m pretty sure I saw at 
Zara last week.

If you’ve followed my blog since the beginning, you may remember that I used to do regular “spotlights” on book historians I admired. And you may remember that all of the book historians I featured were old white men.

Rest assured, this is not because I have a thing for old white men. It’s just that (as in many academic fields) old white men have tended to dominate the book history world. Yes, this is changing, and there are now lots of female book historians who are getting recognition for doing fantastic things, but this is pretty recent. Actually, a quick plug: there’s now a Women in Book History Bibliography! You should check it out. It’s new and shiny and destined to keep improving.

Anyway, back to the post.

When book history was still a young’un, Elizabeth Eisenstein was one of the few women who helped give the field direction. If you’ve ever attended a lecture about print history/culture, you’ve undoubtedly been introduced to her The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), which is a two-volume tome that comprehensively considers the social, economic, and political effects of the printing press. It’s this book that made Eisenstein one of the field’s seminal figures. Indeed, she “could not find a single book or even a sizeable article which attempted to survey the consequences of the 15th-century communications shift”, so she just went and filled that massive gap herself.

The ideas presented in Agent of Change served, and continue to serve, as the foundation for most book historians’ understandings of the printing press’ cultural ramifications. But Eisenstein didn’t stop there. Throughout her career, she constantly expanded upon her ideas in lectures, articles, and books. In 2011, her final book was published, and it has a much better title than The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. It’s called Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending. It makes for a good scholarly Christmas gift.

Despite how important and wonderful Eisenstein’s books are, though, readers should be warned that they are not bedtime reads. They are filled with big and hard-to-pronounce words, and are jammed with ideas that require substantial mental effort to understand and process. They are the books that scare people away from academia. However, they are also the books that make better scholars of all those who try to tackle them. Read them slowly. Chew them.

And, if you find you need a break, follow Elizabeth Eisenstein’s example and play some tennis.

It turns out that Eisenstein wasn’t only a bad-ass scholar – she was also a nationally-ranked senior women’s tennis player. According to this article, she took home the gold from the 1988 Singles World Championship (70-year-old category), and then proceeded to win three Grand Slams and 33 national championships. At one point, she had 36 straight victories, earning her the title of “the Assassin”. In short, she was everything I hope to be when I am old: super sharp and super active and just super in general. I mean, look how happy she is talking about scribal scarcity. She’s lovin’ it.

Elizabeth Eisenstein died on January 31st earlier this year and, in their obituary, The New York Times quite appropriately deemed her a “trailblazing historian of movable type”. Amen. Eisenstein blazed a lot of those trails that the rest of us now often take for granted.

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