Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: "How Books Came to America"

As you might imagine, when I saw a publication notice for John Hruschka's How Books Came to America: The Rise of the American Book Trade (Penn State University Press, 2012), I was quite excited. A monograph on the early American book trade? Yes, please!

Unfortunately, that's not really what this book is. As Hruschka notes in his preface, he began the project that became this book as a "professional biography of Frederick Leypoldt" (xiii), a noted 19th-century bookseller/publisher and the founder of key American publishing trade publications, including Publishers' Weekly and Library Journal. And from about seventy pages in, that's fundamentally how it ended up. And that's a good thing. Leypoldt's story is fascinating, and Hruschka tells it well, from its roots in the early 19th century German vision of transplanting their style of publishing and bookselling to America through to the present, as the descendants of Leypoldt's companies struggle to make their way in the ever-more-rapidly-changing world.

Hruschka's account of Leypoldt's bookselling, publishing, and editing ventures, and his quest to bring some semblance of order to the chaotic American book trade, is entirely worth reading. While Leypoldt's "successes" ended up relying on others (Henry Holt and R.R. Bowker among them) to bring them to eventual fruition, his efforts are certainly worthy of notice.

The first six chapters, in which Hruschka seems to attempt to make the title fit the book, I had a bit more trouble with. These are, largely, recapitulations of prior works which have considered the origins and growth of the book trade industries in America: the first HBA volume, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt's The Book in America, William Charvat's Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850, and Robert Cazden's A Social History of the German Book Trade in America to the Civil War most particularly. While I see Hruschka's point in including these early chapters (to provide background to the Leypoldt chapters by explaining the always-fragmented, even haphazard development of the book trades in America), they seem not to fit with the rest of the book ... which in turn doesn't really fit with the title.

There are some minor errors which I hope can be corrected in later versions of the book: the author of "What is the History of Books?" is Robert Darnton, not Roger (xi), while the Mayflower passenger was Priscilla Mullins, not Rogers (77). It is an over-simplification to say that "A printed book is one of many identical copies" (5) - this is, of course, demonstrably not true for the hand-press period.

While I wish that Hruschka and his publisher had come up with a more accurate title for this book, I finished it very glad that I'd kept reading. The later chapters on Leypoldt and his ventures are very well done, and I certainly recommend them without reservation.

2 comments:

Fang Jing said...

This is a well-written, balanced review. I really enjoy your writing, which I follow via Google Reader. Keep up the good work.

coqui zevallo said...

In 1540-1550 several book dealers were active in Nueva EspaƱa (Mexico) and Nueva Castilla (Peru)