Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: "Books as History"

David Pearson's Books as History (first published 2008; revised edition published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2011) ought to be read by, well, everyone, frankly, but at the very least anyone with even the slightest interest in books. Most especially, perhaps, it should be required reading for those who pen breathless screeds about "the death of the book," or who simply don't understand the fact that books can be important historical artifacts, imparting lessons far more important than the text contained within them. "Books may cease to be read," Pearson writes, "but let us recognise that we may have other reasons to value them" (p. 5).

Pearson, director of the City of London's Library, Archives, and Guildhall Art Gallery, is one of the best-qualified people in the world to write a book about the importance of books as history. An expert on both bookbindings and provenance research (among other aspects of book history), he puts that knowledge to good use here, pointing out in several chapters the various ways in which a book can become, as he puts it, "a preservable object with an individual history" (p. 22), a "unique artefact in the fabric of cultural heritage, with a wealth of meaning worth preserving and interpreting" (p. 25).

Through different typographic choices, design styles, illustration techniques, &c., Pearson first examines how a single text can be changed and altered, and he shows how, do to the production processes during the hand-press period, no two books even from the same edition are likely to be identical, strictly speaking. And then he digs deeper, noting that even in cases where the text and design may be identical, all of the individual copies of a particular edition become unique objects in their own right. He uses the example of 1,000 unbound copies of an 18th-century book, all of which go to different owners, each to be bound to the purchaser's own preferences, and later to be marked up, used, and passed on to subsequent owners. Each of those copies is a unique historical object, different, however slightly, from all of its edition-mates. A case study at the end of the book examines in detail five copies of a single book, to prove the point.

In his penultimate chapter, Pearson examines the role of libraries as historical artifacts themselves: "Knowing the contents of private and institutional libraries of the past allows us to compare them with other collections of the time, and to build up wider pictures of book ownership over the centuries, looking at average sizes, changing trends in language or subject, and in the place of origin of the books. We can see which books were popular and which were not; books have survived today in very uneven ways, and ones which are very rare today may once have been much more widely read than ones which have survived in relatively large quanitities. ... Looking carefully at [historical peoples'] collections, and the physical evidence of the ways in which they treated them, helps us to better understand these various roles which books have played in history" (p. 166-7).

Looking forward, Pearson makes the very important point that "If [books'] rationale is solely textual, their obsolescence seems guaranteed; the key point is that it is not, and that we are collectively in danger of making bad decisions about what should and should not be preserved for posterity if we overlook this" (p. 21).

Books as History as a book-object also happens to be very well designed, and is thoroughly illustrated with example images that nicely complement Pearson's text. A good list of sources for further reading is included for those who find something intriguing and want to read more. It's an excellent introduction to the book history field, and a book which should, as I said at the outset, be read by anyone with even a remote interest in the subject.