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Speaking of Volumes

Praising, or burying, the book?

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Oxford Companion to the Book
edited by Michael Suarez & H. R. Woudhuysen
Oxford, 1,408 pp., $325

Speaking of Volumes

J. Pierpont Morgan’s library, New York

Gail Mooney / Corbis

Recently, I was having lunch with a friend in the café of the Morgan Library when the topic of electronic books came up. We all have friends with whom we cannot discuss certain things, but I had no idea that this particular friend was fond of those barbarous contraptions that are threatening to wreck the book trade. No sooner did the Kindle topic come up than it nearly ruined an otherwise festive lunch. In the future, whenever I am with this otherwise agreeable young woman, and the K-word surfaces, I shall know to change the subject instanter.

It was ironic that this dispute should have occurred in the Morgan because the old tycoon’s library is one of the great shrines of the book. Certainly, I have very fond memories of the place: When I was first trying to write as an adolescent I remember seeing one of Alexander Pope’s manuscripts there—a mess of cross-outs and corrections—and thinking to myself: If so polished an author as Pope had to write and rewrite, and rewrite again, to knock his things into shape, there was hope for us all. And then I remember reading the spines of all those glorious books:  Here indeed were realms of gold, and I could not wait to mine them.

Twenty years from now, 50 years from now, will anyone feel the same passionate emulation on seeing anything that the Kindle produces? Will any of our tycoons build private libraries to house Kindle books? Will anyone care to see the e-manuscripts of Kindle authors? With such gloomy thoughts, I took up the two-volume Oxford Companion to the Book with high hopes, certain that the volumes would be, at once, informative and entertaining. Alas, they are not as good as they might have been.

Oxford should never have handed this project off to academics. What was needed was an editor like Charles Arnold-Baker (1918-2009), the brilliant barrister whose Companion to British History is one of the glories of 20th-century scholarship precisely because it was not the product of academic consensus. (In fact, it was Oxford that first commissioned Arnold-Baker to write his Companion—though later he decided to go with a smaller, more sympathetic publisher after OUP tried to muffle his unfashionable views. Once he made the move, a printer assured him that he had made the right choice, if only because being published by Oxford was like going to bed with a duchess: The privilege was greater than the pleasure.)

The Oxford Companion to the Book ought to have been an adventurous, fun, surprising tour d’horizon. Instead, the general editors turned it into a librarian’s survey. And rather than pursuing unexplored avenues that might have led readers to see their subject anew, the editors decided to confine the Companion to three predictable sections: one on the history of the book, one on technical aspects of the book, and one on miscellaneous people and things related to the book. Thus, the editors give us the history of the book in Hungary, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, the Baltic states, the Balkan states, Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, and Ireland. They give us earnest essays on paper, printing, and bookbinding. And they end with an encyclopedia offering entries on publishers, libraries, illustrators, and other book-related matters already sufficiently covered in more authoritative reference books, particularly the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Marxist bias of many essays is striking. On the Balkan states, for example, the authors note that although the Soviet Union closed down all private publishers and printers when they got their hands on these places after World War II, “communist ideology contributed to creating a cultural infrastructure of schools, public libraries, book clubs and so on.” And of course, once the market economy replaced Soviet socialism, “the numbers of bookshops in all the countries fell”—though the authors omit to mention that this was the result of the rise of book chains and online shops, both of which continue to flourish.

In her article on the book in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, Christine Thomas interjects a welcome note of realism: “One of the Soviet media’s clichés—that the USSR was ‘the world’s foremost nation of readers’—could in many ways be justified. The book industry had few rivals worldwide in number of titles and copies published.” Moreover, the Soviets were adept at removing illiteracy from their vast territories. “Yet for seven decades,” Thomas reminds readers, “the book was essentially the ideological tool of a totalitarian state.”

On the history of the book in Germany, John Flood quotes Luther’s conviction that printing was “the greatest and the latest gift of God, for by this means God seeks to extend the cause of true religion to the ends of the earth and to make it available in all regions.” Since Scripture was of the essence of Luther’s “true religion,” it is not surprising that, between 1520 and 1526, 70 percent of titles published in Germany took up the issue of the importance of Scripture for the laity. By 1520, Flood points out, 32 tracts by Luther had been published in 500 editions, “and within a few years a quarter of all German publications appeared under his name. Before he died, more than 3 million copies of his writings, excluding his Bible translations, had been printed.” Matthew Arnold called Martin Luther the “Philistine of genius in religion,” but by any chalk, he was an astonishingly prolific Philistine.

The weakest is the encyclopedic section, where many of the entries are either banal or ludicrous. Under colouring book, for example, the editors tell us that this is “a book printed with line art, for a reader to colour at will, originally with paint, subsequently with crayons.” And then there is this gem under pornography: “The question of what constitutes pornography remains a representational conundrum.” Omissions also abound: There is no entry, for example, for periodical literature, or for Vivian Ridler, the last of the great Oxford printers. And the entry for the British Museum—certainly a place of huge interest to anyone interested in books—is threadbare.

The strongest pieces can be found among the essays. N. G. Wilson is good on the history of the book in Byzantium; Harold Love has lively things to say on the manuscript after the coming of print; and Brian Cummings is brilliant on the book as symbol. After detailing the care that most civilized societies have shown the book, Cummings writes:

Alongside the exceptional investment in the preservation of the book perhaps also should be placed the corresponding urge to destruction. The practice of book burning goes back to at least the Qing dynasty in China in the 2nd century b.c. In Christianity, burning physical books is virtually synonymous with the pronouncement of bans on heretical ideas. The books of Priscillian of Ávila were burned in 383, and those of Nestorius within a generation. The simultaneous combustion of the heretic’s works with the consumption of his body on the stake was a material symbol of the purging of abstract ideas: Jan Hus was burned with his books at the Council of Constance in 1415, and the same council ordered Wyclif’s bones to be exhumed and burned alongside his writings.

Nevertheless, such incendiary resolve was not always triumphant. As Cummings notes, “Just as Pedro Berruguete’s 1480 painting (now in the Prado) of .  .  . proceedings against the Cathars showed St. Dominic’s works preserved intact alongside the charred detritus of the Cathar texts, so Foxe reports a burning of Tyndale’s Testaments in 1526 in which the precious books simply refused to catch fire.”

Whether our own books will survive the bonfire that the e-book is readying is, of course, anyone’s guess. But no one will come away with any fresh insights from the article included here, where the authors ask:

What is a book? .  .  . Are all the MS books and other documents catalogued and uncatalogued in an archive, one large book? Are games, telephone directories, interactive narratives, or the results of data mining, books? What roles do the author, the reader, and the medium play? For example, does the ever-changing content, bookmarks, and hyperlinks in an iPhone constitute a new, irreplicable book? 

Here is the jejune thinking behind so much of the abandonment of the traditional book. Many might wish to redefine the book along these trendy, trivial lines; the rest of us must stand by Milton’s definition: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit .  .  . treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries, which will be published next month.

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