Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review: "Oxford Companion to the Book"

Note: this review appears in the April issue of Fine Books & Collections (to which I encourage all readers of this blog to subscribe (or resubscribe). I've posted it here (by the kind permission of the publisher) as it appeared in the magazine.

If no bibliophile gets anything done in 2010, I think it may not be a stretch to blame the two volumes under review here. The Oxford Companion to the Book (OCB), edited by Michael J. Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen and released last month by Oxford University Press, could occupy those of us interested in books and book history quite happily for the foreseeable future. We aren’t necessarily a numbers crowd, but these require our consideration. The OCB has taken six years to produce, and contains more than a million words across more than 1,400 pages. Nearly 400 scholars from 27 countries contributed the 51 essays (19 thematic studies, 32 national/regional histories of the book) and the 5,160 A-Z reference entries.

The editors note at the outset the limits of this or any such source which attempts a comprehensive approach to its subject: "Knowing full well that catching perfection was out of the question, we have simply attempted to bring the world a work worthy of its subject. … [W]e have endeavoured to produce a book that reflects a passion for the artefact, a fascination with the many aspects of bibliography and book history, and a deep regard for the archive." They observe that the OCB has been designed for both ready-reference and systematic study, made possible by a detailed system of cross-referencing, thematic indexing, and an extensive general index.

The long essays, which take up the majority of the first volume, are written by experts in their fields; reading them from start to finish would provide as thorough an education on book history that you can find between two covers. On the thematic side, authors include Andrew Robinson (Writing Systems), Christopher de Hamel (The European Medieval Book) Andrea Immel (Children’s Books), Paul Goldman (The History of Illustration and Its Technologies), David Pearson (Bookbinding), Daven Christopher Chamberlain (Paper), Eileen Gardiner, Ronald Musto (The Electronic Book), and several others. The national and regional histories cover just about every imaginable portion of the globe, from Hungary to Canada to the Philippines; while America and Britain are treated at the greatest length, each runs to at least four pages and provides significant bibliographical lists for further research. I particularly enjoyed reading the essays encompassing places I’m not as familiar with, which provided some fun surprises, like the accidental 1556 arrival of printing in India (the press, sent from Portugal, had originally been requested by the emperor of Abyssinia, who changed his mind; the printer rerouted to Goa and established himself there).

In the 5,160 reference entries you will find short definitions of book-related terms (a few, at random: blad, conger, dandy roll, marbling, padded binding, rebus, volvelle), and sketches of various people related to book culture in some way (printers, publishers, authors, illustrators, collectors, forgers, librarians, bibliographers), institutions and organizations (publishers, collecting groups, libraries and archives, booksellers), and titles of particular importance. All but the shortest definitional entries are signed by their author, and each provides citations for further study. It’s entirely possible, I discovered, to completely lose track of time in browsing through these entries, which are replete with fascinating characters and biblio-tidbits. On just the first page, we learn of Leiden bookseller/publisher Pieter van der Aa (1659-1733), who had a library of 20,000 volumes; Norwegian printer Sivert KnudssĂžn (1759-1817), the founder of a lending library; Abagar, the first Bulgarian printed book (1651); English book and manuscript collector John Roland Abbey (1894-1969), plus the beginning of the section on "abbreviations and contractions." It’s awe-inspiring.

Using the cross-references in the text (indicated by an asterisk before the entry referenced) it’s possible to create your own path through the text (for example, following the cross-references in the entries just mentioned will bring you to the entries for atlases, lending library, printing, ephemera, breviary, rectos, leaves, colour-plate books, illuminated manuscripts, Sotheby’s, ampersand, or justification). A similar function is performed by the thematic index at the start of the first volume, which groups entries according to their main topic. Of particular interest to this magazine’s readers may be the "Book Collectors and Collecting" theme, which runs to eight columns and unites topics of interest (including bibliomania, condition, first edition, provenance, sophisticated copy, ownership marks), bibliophilic organizations (among those included are the Aldus Society, Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies, Grolier Club, Roxburghe Club, and the Settle of Odd Volumes), and a list of the collectors featured in the volumes (subdivided by location and century of prominence). Other major themes include Authorship, Copyright, Forgers and Forgery, Illustration, Maps and Cartography, Printers and Publishers. While navigating through the thematic entries seems tricky at first glance, the editors have provided some very useful roadmaps here for students of the book.

There are likely to be small errors in these volumes. There are things a different team of editors would have added, subtracted, or treated at different length; it would be impossible, even in a set of this magnitude, to define or sketch every topic of interest to any bibliophile. But the OCB provides as good a base for such an endeavor as we’ve ever had, or are likely to get, in printed form. It is certainly a beautiful example of that form, I must add, with its sturdy binding, heavy paper, excellent illustrations, and decorative slipcase. If current trends continue, we may not see its like again; the next iteration of this work, like so many great reference sources, certainly could be primarily electronic (with all the benefits and downsides thereof). The OCB itself is available via web-based subscription, as the Oxford publicity representative told me when I bought my copy. I just smiled, and said, "But why would I get that when you’ve made such a beautiful book out of it?"