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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.”

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