Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: "The Book in the Renaissance"

Andrew Pettegree's The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010) examines the first century and a half of print culture in Europe, surveying its origins, its spread, its characters, and its impact on the western world. Straight away he makes the key point, that early print culture was shaped "less by the idealism of scholars than by pragmatic businessmen for whom the only books that mattered were those that turned a profit" (p. xiv) - and these weren't (for the most part) the great folio tomes we know and love, but cheap, short, disposable pieces of news, controversial literature, popular science and medicine.

Many of these productions, which Pettegree correctly describes as the bedrock of the nascent printing industry, have failed to survive at all, or if they do, it's in a strikingly small number of copies (his example, p. 333, that of all the sixteenth-century books published in French more than half are known in a single copy, was certainly enough to raise my eyebrows). Using the new technologies now available to us, Pettegree suggests that we can, "for the first time chart a coherent narrative of print, from the first experiments of the 1450s to the dawn of a mass information society" (p. xv).

Pettegree's opening chapters describe the early trials and tribulations of the printing trade, as processes of coordination were developed and commercialization schemes were launched (it became immediately clear, he notes, that jobbing work was going to be an absolute necessity when printing large projects, since the capital outlay for materials, &c. had to be made long before profits from book sales could be expected). He then chronicles the not-always-positive reaction to printing's spread, as readers adapted to the new medium and printers sought niches within which they might operate successfully. A survey of print networks follows, as Pettegree uses several case studies to chart the geographic connections between authors, printers, booksellers, collectors and others connected with the book world.

Given the author's personal research interests and previous works, it's not too much of a surprise that much of the book focuses on the Reformation's impact on the book world and print culture. While there are chapters centered around literary publications, news-sheets, schoolbooks, and other genres (medical works, emblem books, &c.), these (while good) didn't feel as strong to me as Pettegree's treatment of the religious conflict that engulfed Europe and played a major role in shaping certain aspects of the book world during the sixteenth century. The struggle led to the first decisive steps toward censorship, geographic shifts in printing centers, disruptions of the international book market, &c.

While portions of this book felt a bit scattershot (as if certain elements were added in an attempt to make the coverage comprehensive), for the most part it's a fascinating and readable exploration of European print culture in its early years. It, as well as the project Pettegree directs at the the University of St. Andrews, the Universal Short Title Catalogue, deserve wide notice.

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