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The history of the book

Adrian Johns

General texts

The best-known anglophonic treatment of the effects of printing is E.L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe (2 vols. Cambridge UP, 1979). This was later abridged as Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge UP, 1983); the shortened text is sufficient for most purposes. However, Eisenstein does not replace the classic treatment of the introduction of printing, first published in 1958: L. Febvre and H.-J. Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800 (Verso, 1984).

These two works serve to introduce the reader to the basic chronologies and narratives in the history of print culture. Students interested in the historiographical arguments at stake may also wish to read R. Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Polity, 1994).

There is an Annual Bibliography of the History of the Printed Book and Libraries (abbr. ABHB, 1970–) which serves as a reference guide to publications in what is a huge and rapidly expanding field.


The notion of an 'author' is, it has been argued, relatively recent. Beginning with M. Foucault's 'What is an Author?' (a paper that exists in several forms, e.g. in P. Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader, Penguin, 1984, 101–20), investigators from various fields have attempted to describe the historical conditions underpinning its construction. R. Chartier, The Order of Books, Ch. 2 discusses the issues and arguments involved. Other treatments include C. Hesse, 'Enlightenment Epistemology and the Laws of Authorship in Revolutionary France, 1777–1793', Representations, 30 (1990), 109–37, M. Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market: Re-reading the History of Aesthetics (Columbia UP, 1994), Ch. 2, and M. Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Harvard UP, 1993). There are also several interesting essays in M. Woodmansee and P. Jaszi (eds.), The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature (Duke UP, 1994). These bring the issue up to the present day, and make provocative connections to issues generated by media other than print.

Production and circulation

The machinery of printing changed relatively little between Gutenberg (c.1450) and the introduction of industrial technology in the early nineteenth century. The craft and culture of the printing house were exhaustively described in Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, issued in parts in 1683 and available in a facsimile reprint (ed. H. Davis and H. Carter, Oxford UP, 2nd edn. 1962). All modern accounts are indebted to Moxon's. Among them are two papers which have received much attention for their relevance to broader considerations of cultural historiography: R. Darnton, 'Workers Revolt: the Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin', in Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre (Basic Books, 1984), 75–104; and N.Z. Davis, 'Strikes and Salvation at Lyon', in Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Polity, 1987), 1–16. The more technical aspects of the craft are analysed, and some of their textual consequences identified, in D.F. McKenzie, 'Printers of the Mind: some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices', Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969), 1–76. Some implications of typographical layout in particular are argued for in McKenzie's 'Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve', in G. Barber and B. Fabian (eds.), Buch und Buchhandel in Europa im Achtzehnten Jahrhundert (Hauswedell, 1981), 81–123; see also McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (British Library, 1985), Ch. 1.


The history of reading practices is a relatively new field. Again, for the issues at stake in its existence see Chartier, The Order of Books, Ch. 1; this may be supplemented by R. Chartier, 'Texts, Printings, Readings', in L. Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (University of California Press, 1989), 154–75, and, for a comprehensive survey of modern approaches, W. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the Renaissance (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), Ch. 3. The use of readers' annotations to recover their interpretative strategies is exemplified in Sherman's book, and also in a much-cited paper by L. Jardine and A. Grafton: '"Studied for Action": How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy', Past and Present, 129 (1990), 30–78. A rather different approach, indebted to the perspectives of historians of science, is pursued in A. Johns, 'The Physiology of Reading in Restoration England', in J. Raven, H. Small, and N. Tadmor (eds.), The Practice and Representation of Reading in England (Cambridge UP, 1996), 138–61. The only general survey of the history of reading is Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (Harper Collins, 1996), which is no less interesting for being aimed at a popular readership.

Related works

The history of the book can impinge on any branch of historiography that has to do with texts and their uses – which is to say virtually any branch at all. Among a vast number of works exemplifying this, one may single out the following. They deal explicitly with issues of authorship, printing and reading to varying extents, but all display to some degree the consequences implied by a historiography of the book.

  • W.M. Ivins, Prints and Visual Communication (1953) – the classic work on the printed image. Now rather dated, it has not yet been replaced by another discussion of comparable generality.
  • R. Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the 'Encyclopédie', 1775–1800 (Harvard UP, 1979) – a detailed account of the manufacture, circulation and piracy of the definitive Enlightenment text.
  • R. Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (Norton, 1995) – discusses (and reproduces) some of the lurid material sold as 'philosophy' during the Enlightenment, and thereby suggests a reinterpretation of what Enlightenment was.
  • W. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton UP, 1994) – an account of a body of texts hitherto little studied, which calls into question such concepts as 'popularisation' and 'dissemination'.
  • A. Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (Yale UP, 1995) – an analysis of the conventions of civility which (sometimes) held together the republic of letters and secured the status of the learned author in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • R. Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Duke UP, 1991), Chs. 1–4 – a theoretical reflection on conceptions of the 'public sphere'.

The future of the book

Prophecies as to the future of print (or its lack of one) are fashionable, and have been made in a number of printed and electronic sources. The essays in G. Nunberg (ed.), The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1996) are, as is usual with such pieces, of mixed quality, but some are worth reading. The most interesting reflections on the future of the book are, however, to be found in a work of fiction: Neal Stephenson's extraordinary The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (Viking, 1995).

Editors' note: In the meantime the best possible guide on how to combine book history and history of the sciences has appeared: Adrian Johns' own The Nature of the Book (Chicago University Press 1998), already a classic!