Different eras, these changes suggest, don’t just produce different kinds of books. Each also generates new ways of treating books – more specifically, new assumptions about what aspects of these physical objects deserve readers’ attention. When my students notice how different an eighteenth-century sermon collection looks from a twentieth-century airport paperback, the difference between a laminated chemistry textbook and the electronic version on their laptop begins to look less unprecedented. In the other direction, though, they begin to see that electronic technologies are in fact creating something radically new. Digital tools may not be upending our reading practices any more drastically than changing forms of print did. What they are revolutionizing is our ideas about reading. In the process, they’re remaking the printed past.
– Leah Price, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading (New York: Basic Books, 2019), p. 33.
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. Continue reading “Book History as a Sub-Division of History”