- Paperback: 776 pages
- Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (April 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226401227
- ISBN-13: 978-0226401225
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,194,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making 1st Edition
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Weighing in at 750-plus pages, Adrian Johns's sturdy tome is several books in one. At one level, it is a close study of print culture in early modern England, a time of civil war in which social and civic relations were being remade from the mores of feudal monarchy to a politics approximating modern democracy. In this transformation, the printing press was an essential vehicle for empowering the common people, and control over the publishing industry was contested among several parties--the government, authors, booksellers, the printers themselves. At another level, Johns's book is a study of the role of printing in the formation of scientific knowledge, a means whereby scientific discoveries could be widely circulated and codified. At another, it is a contribution to the sociology of communication, concentrating on changes in English society thanks to the press, through which a literate but remarkably isolated people who, an 18th-century writer observed, knew no more of the city and countryside outside their immediate neighborhood than they did of France or Russia, could become aware of the larger world--often over the objections of power-makers like Sir Francis Bacon, who urged that the people not be given access to information that did not immediately concern them.
Johns's book is dense with facts and quotations from the contemporary literature, but his prose is lightened by keen observation and telling anecdotes. (In one, Benjamin Franklin tried to make his way across Europe as a journeyman printer but grew so disgusted at the copious drinking of his fellow tradesmen that he switched careers, an accident that would change the course of history.) The Nature of the Book will be especially useful to those now tracking the communications revolution of the late 20th century, in which new technologies are once again changing power relations and supplanting old media. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
By and large, our trust in the veracity of books goes unquestioned, a tacit assumption made possible by virtue of the concerted efforts of writers and printers at the dawn of print culture. Believing that attaining an understanding of this crucial legacy, and the complex nexus of knowledge and print, is key to appreciating many of the subtleties of modern civilization, Johns tracks the evolution of the book by focusing on the book trade as practiced in one hugely influential locale, London. In his exacting and often pioneering narrative, Johns chronicles the complexity of the craft, politics, and economies of printing and book publishing, with profiles of seminal individuals, discussion of the physiology of reading, and penetrating scrutiny of the rather shaky foundations of scientific, philosophical, and historical discourse. There has been a noticeable surge in new research into the history of reading, a line of inquiry inspired, no doubt, by the spread of electronic technology, a communications frontier begging for exactly the sort of rigorous standards that were applied to print four centuries ago. Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Johns's ostensible purpose in tying all these themes together is to attack Elizabeth Eisenstein's theory that fixity is an inherent effect of the advent of print culture; however his argument isn't supported by the evidence he so ponderously provides. He does not in fact compare print culture with manuscript culture, as an earlier reviewer stated; and without this comparison it's hard to say Eisenstein's theory suffers any damage as a result of Johns's book. His point is merely that fixity (of authorship, edition, form) was a problem for authors and printers in seventeenth century London, one that the Royal Society and the Company of Stationers both worked to solve; if anything, this rather supports Eisenstein's theory, since her point is that prior to the printing press the very notion of 'fixity' was impossible to imagine, nevermind realize.
Despite the fact that the book is mistitled and its unifying argument is not especially choate, it does contain a wealth of interesting information about the gritty physicality of printing in seventeenth century London, and its later chapters are excellent intellectual/scientific history. I only wish the editors at the University of Chicago Press, whom Johns praises so highly in his acknowledgements, had been a bit tougher with the manuscript.
Overturning easy targets Elizabeth Eisenstein (rather unfairly) and Marshall McLuhan (more justly), Johns argues that the emergence of print technology did not stabilize and thus give authority to texts -- on the contrary, print culture could be even messier than manuscript culture. Authority and fixity were attributes and values that had to be constructed and ascribed to printed texts over a substantial period of time.
This very thick, massively researched book reads like it is the product of a gang of Umberto Ecos or encyclopedic Stephen Greenblatts. Avoiding a grand narrative of 17th century English print culture, Johns describes famous and marginal characters as well as their physical milieu with incredible detail. If the stories don't fascinate you, you will at least get a far more concrete grasp of the early modern world than one normally receives does from academic books.
On the other hand, the length of the book can become tedious and its overall argument elusive. Avoiding a grand, teleological narrative is one thing; losing sight of your thesis is another. But if you don't mind working with this book in interpreting a ton of data and fascinating events, you will find it a rewarding read.
Thus, for instance, we get to learn a great deal about the finer social points of the printers/publishers guild in London, even about who should pay for dinner. But this information is on a scale, and left in a state, where it is more interesting to someone researching a novel set in a printing workshop in England in the middle of the seventeen century, than to someone wondering what, in 1650, was going through the head of someone settling down with a newly acquired book.
Similarly, we learn a great about the publishing arrangements and politics of the Royal Society, and in particular about the 'Philosophical Transactions', as a lead up to a description of the bust-up between Christiaan Huygens and Robert Hooke over the invention of the spring escapement watch movement (David Landes' account, in 'Revolution in Time', which I would have thought definitive, and fairly well known - it is certainly more concise, and much clearer about the technical issues of who may or may not have been in the right, and to what extent - is not cited in the bibliography). But again this chapter leads nowhere, except to a conclusion about how the virtues of the Royal Society and the Philosophical Transactions, and the model of science they embodied, were not 'obvious' to contemporaries. This would be an interesting point to argue (it is certainly one with which I would be fascinated to engage). It might well be possible to build a case that a society that included Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and many similar others among its members, corresponded regularly with the most learned men in the rest of Europe, and published a journal where articles were admitted for publication only after review by members, had no obvious virtues as a clearing house for scientific information in comparision to, e.g., a journal that solicited materials to be dropped of at a specified coffee house, but I'm afraid Johns is going to have to work a bit harder if I am to accept such a claim seriously as an argument rather than as wishful thinking. (He even admits that all competitors to the Philosophical Transactions took it as a model, and also that most of them failed completely and almost immediately, though he does not discuss in satisfactory detail why).
This book does, however, convince me that there is a fascinating book to be written on the relationship between readers and texts in early modern Europe, a book that follows up properly on a sentence that tantalized me in the introduction: 'It seems that nobody in 1660's Europe built an air-pump sucessfully by relying solely on Boyle's textual description of the engine. Some we know, tried; all, we think, failed.' There is also the book that is actually to be found at the core of this one: a monograph on the the issues an author in early modern Europe had to deal with in getting a book published, and securing credit for his ideas. Such a monograph would be the result of throwing away the stuff about, for instance, who paid for dinner at Stationers Hall, and tightening up the text and the supporting materials (Johns - who, in passing, accuses technical philosophers of 'canting speech' - has a pompously prolix style: rewritten, the text could easily, among other things, lose a quarter of its length).