Raven, James. The Oxford illustrated history of the book Oxford University Press, 2020. xxxvi, 431 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-870298. £30.00
One of my early responsibilities, many years ago, was to teach historical bibliography and modern book production as part of what was then called the First Professional Examination of the Library Association. I was hardly expert in either of these fields, but, by burning the midnight oil, I managed to stay a step or two ahead of the students, most of whom were only a few years younger than my 25-year-old self. Eventually, I set aside these responsibilities, but retained an interest in both fields.
In that distant past, my recollection is that the resources I used focused entirely on the invention of the printed book and its history in Western Europe. It is welcome, therefore, to find that this Oxford illustrated history deals with the history of the book around the world, in all of its forms. As Eleanor Robson says, at the beginning of her chapter on 'The ancient world', 'Books existed before the book: that is, many objects and forms carried script before sheets of paper, bound together, became the default portable medium for the long-term storage and transmission of writing worldwide'.
The arrangement of chapters seems rather odd: overall, the scheme is based on time and geography, but other topics (managing information, industrialisation, globalisation) are interspersed without any seeming logical connection to the topics on either side. The first chapter is an introduction by the Editor, James Raven, which explores some of the dimensions of book history dealt with in later chapters. He discusses the definition of 'book', the growing interest in book history of different forms of book in different places, and how that diversification of forms and places gives rise to new questions on the history of forms for the presentation and preservation of text.
The connection between writing and books is an obvious one, and yet writing appears to have started with numbers to tally the movement of goods, and only later to attach text. In 'The ancient world', Robson notes this development and also comments that the materiality of the record ought not to limit our definition of the 'book': thereby allowing the knotted strings, or khipu, of the Andean civilisation to be accepted as books. Certainly the now ubiquitous paper book was a relatively late development, with bamboo strips and silk being used in China, papyrus in Egypt, clay tablets in Sumeria, and bone in more than one place. In fact Robson's chapter is an account of all the different kinds of material used to record text, from trading accounts to omens, in the ancient world.
Barbara Crostini moves from the ancient world to Byzantium, dealing with book in that culture from the introduction of Christianity in the late first century CE, until its collapse under the Ottoman invasion of 1453. The dominant material in the early period was papyrus, usually in roll form, but also in separate sheets: this was followed by parchment (untanned animal skins) and, then, from the 13th century, paper, manufactured mainly in Italy and Spain and exported around the Mediterranean. Religious texts constitute a significant proportion of the books produced in this era and illustrations begin to be used. Sadly, much must have been lost in the sacking of Constantinople in 1453, but Crostini notes that much also survived in other places, such as the monasteries of Mount Athos.
In Chapter 4, Cynthia Brokow moves us in time and space to 'Medieval and early modern East Asia', an area of considerable development during the period studied, with the perfection of wood-block printing methods, and then, in Korea, the invention of metal moveable type in the 13th century, some two centuries before Gutenberg's re-introduction of such type in Europe. In another chapter, 'Renaissance and reformation', Raven and Proot, debate how Gutenberg may have arrived at the re-invention of moveable metal type, and note that he would be familiar already with the use of wooden-block printing for trademarks on sacks and other decorative uses, and the move to metal may have been a natural, evolutionary development. However, trade between the Far East and Europe were established before the 15th century and spices and silk may not have been the only things that travelled the trade routes.
It is not possible in a short review to deal with all the chapters, but I can assure anyone interested in the history of the book, that they will find a great deal to foster that interest in these chapters. I was somewhat surprised to find a chapter on 'Managing information', by Ann Blair, popping up in the middle of the book, but, of course, the book has been the main channel for the communication of information for centuries. Blair deals with the management of information in books, noting the role of images, indexes, contents pages and other elements of the paratext, and with the organization of books in libraries and the role of catalogues.
In another "non-geographic" chapter, Marie-Françoise Cachin, deals with the impact of industrialisation, which, of course, has had major impacts on printing and other aspects of book production, culminating in the present period in the e-book and technology tools such as the e-book reader, and the e-book read app for phones, tablet computers and other devices. Chapin doesn't quite get this far, as she deals mainly with the 19th century industrialisation, but her story is quite fascinating, covering, as it does, such contributory factors as the growth of public education, the rise of the publishing house, and a number of sociological factors that had an impact on the growth of the book industry.
Other chapters deal with the Islamic World, modern China, Japan and Korea, South Asia, the period of revolution and enlightenment, and, in the final chapter, with the transformation of books. Here, Jeffrey Schnapp deals with transformation in two main senses: attempts to change the linear nature of the book by changes to layout, typography, and even page structure and shape and the more permanent transformation to the digital sphere from Alan Kay's Dynabook to today's iPad and mobile phone e-reader apps.
This is an excellent compilation on the world-wide history of the book and I'm sure that anyone with an interest in the field will at least want to read it and, in fact, at £30.00 (and probably discounted by some suppliers) it is a beautifully illustrated bargain. Put it on your Christmas present list.
Prof. T.D. Wilson
How to cite this review
Wilson, T.D. (2020). Review of: Raven, James. The Oxford illustrated history of the book. Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 2020. Information Research, 25(3), review no. R695. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs695.html
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.