The review below is a somewhat earlier form of a review that has since been published in PBSA, 96:2 (June 2002), 310-315. This text does not represent the final form of the review. Anyone inclined to quote from it should refer to the printed version.
Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. A Handbook for the Study of Book History in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 2000. ix, 155 pp. Paper, $15.00. (ISBN 0-8444-1015-2)
"General reference works . . . offer insight into the way people in the past 'put their world together,' for they supposedly are written at the basic level," Ronald J. and Mary Saracino Zboray remark in their Handbook for students of book history (p. 24). Had they followed this dictum, their work might well have "put the world of book history together" for people about to enter the field. The field needs such an introduction. Authors and publisher were right to think one could be useful. This introduction, however, is less useful than the field requires.
The Zborays neither explain their subject nor engage with its materials. They provide little definition of the field and omit discussion of why its study might matter to anyone at all. Their discussions of methodologies for book history studies, strong in areas where they are experts, are weak or misleading almost everywhere else. Their knowledge of the physical book seems slender, their interest in it slight. What might have seemed the basic rhetorical and authorial requirement for any text, perhaps most especially an introductory one -- to conceive of an audience and address it appropriately -- goes unmet. For a field that lacks any alternative introduction, and for which this one may preempt the creation of other, competing efforts, these flaws pose serious problems.
The work opens with comments that seem pitched to an audience less prepared to enter upon the study of book history than the advanced undergraduate and graduate students who might have been thought the Zborays' primary readership. They write that
books are . . . like people in that they are created, they have a life span in which they move about and change physically, and they grow old. Books, however, have the advantage of an existence that often stretches over centuries, for we can still find some books that were born of the first presses of the fifteenth century. Although many books live longer than people, book history is like human history -- or biography -- in that it is possible to study a book’s life span (pp. 1-2).
"We can always learn something new from books" (p. 2), they continue, and then they add: "when we read a book written by someone else, we listen to that person’s thoughts, compare them to our own, and ponder them." The products of twentieth-century scholarship and theory about reading and reception, which a reader might have expected this text, published in the century's last year, to epitomize, the Zborays seem instead to ignore. On page 4, however, they contradict what they had seemed to say on page 2 and invoke the concept of "mediation": "meaning does not leap directly from writers' to readers' minds through printed pages, but rather is produced through interventions, or mediations." In fact, the mediations "of producers, disseminators, and consumers of printed materials" are book history's very subject. They "provide insight into how a society produces meaning" (p. 5).
Other contradictions follow in a steady stream. Distinguishing four phases in Americans’ practice of book history, they cite James D. Hart, Frank Luther Mott, and John Tebbel as exemplars of the second phase. Their work created an "audience for itself" that "was broad, but mostly focused in academe" (p. 6). Exemplars of the Zborays' third phase include Robert Darnton, Elizabeth Eisenstein, the Histoire de l'édition française, and multi-volume book history projects edited by David D. Hall for the United States and Donald F. McKenzie for Great Britain. (One notes parenthetically the non-American references in a Handbook for students of "book history in the United States" [p. 3]. That limited focus makes reiterated conflicts between narrowly defined topic and actual practice inevitable.) About Darnton, the Zborays explain that he "introduced the field [i.e., book history] to many American academics" (p. 7). Do they mean, "to many American academics who were not part of 'academe' during their so-called second phase"?
Problems with logic and consistency join insufficient terminological explanations to add to a novice’s uncertainty. The Zborays' short survey of book history's four phases mentions "the role of the Protestant vernacular as a dominant cultural force"; "the consequence of a high and low culture as a consensual middle ground"; and "the practices of the histoire du livre school in France" (p. 7). A page later, they refer to "a reading revolution." These unexplained and unidentified snippets of professional jargon cannot really be intended for the same readers who needed but a few pages previously to be told that "books are . . . like people" and that "we can always learn something new from books." Readers of introductory guides need firm ground. The Zborays have instead provided a confusing mix of cliche, contradictory dicta, and jargon. Reference to the "reading revolution" occurs in a list of ten questions that are "among the important questions book historians debate" (p. 8). Left, as the Zborays leave them, free-floating, these ten questions lack any evident "importance." The authors put them in no context, fail to explain why they might be important. No more do they define the nature of the field. Ten questions do not a subject make. While the "mediations" to which books are subject may be book history's subject (p. 5), what such a statement might actually mean the Zborays neglect to explain. "Do authors have solid idea [sic] about the nature of their audiences?" (p. 8), the Zborays ask. This fundamental question they might usefully have pondered themselves.
A three-page section called "HGow Can People Participate in Book History?" and perhaps modeled on Carl Becker in an "Everyman His Own Book Historian" mode, speaks about "how people can participate in book history."
Students in high school or college can add a book history dimension to term papers and other research projects. For example, a report on a famous author might include some consideration of the publisher (what other books did the house publish at about that time? ["house" in the sense the Zborays use it here on p. 10 is not defined until fn. 14, p. 17; the note itself appears only on p. 86, leaving the reader quite at sea while reading this passage] did this author stay with one publisher or work with several at different times?) If any first editions of the author's works are available, some bibliographical description of them could be part of the report (p. 10).
"The report"? Perhaps "people" still write book reports in high school -- but do they do so anywhere else? Why would a student "consider the publisher"? What might such considerations signify? Professionals who read PBSA know why. Readers of introductory handbooks may not. "A famous author"? Do un-famous authors not illuminate book history? "Famous" according to what criteria? "Some bibliographical description"? How much is "some"? Would a collation of the first three gatherings of a quarto be enough? Would it suffice to note that a volume is "a quarto"? Once again, why would anyone want to do any such thing, under what circumstances, in what contexts? What is such knowledge, what are such facts, for? What do they signify? What is the relationship, if any, between bibliographical description and book history?
A lengthy section on "How to Locate and Use Sources" (pp. 13-75) constitutes the heart of the Zborays' Handbook. Occasional strengths indicate what could (and should) have characterized the Handbook. See, e.g., the section on "Writers’ Personal and Professional Papers," pp. 28-36. But flaws accumulate at a rate that becomes painful to address.
The sources, the Zborays tell their reader, are "surprisingly abundant and easily accessible." But they are "little used, except by librarians and other specialists" (p. 13). They do not make clear why anyone not a specialist might want to use such sources. Nor is it clear if the Zborays intend what, rhetorically, their "except" preceding the "fact" that only librarians and other specialists have used these sources apparently implies, that is, that the uses to which specialists have put these sources are somehow wanting. Writing about how students can compare "the number of works published in different cities . . . as a way to track the publishing industry," the Zborays do not explain the point of such studies. No more do they suggest why anyone might want to know "the number of different books written by a particular author, dealing with a certain subject, produced by a certain publisher, or published in a specific place or year" (p. 13). A reference to NUC's "685 volumes" (p. 14) leaves supplementary volumes 686-754 in limbo but also, and worse, misrepresents the nature of the work. The Zborays seem interested only in people who are "researchers in American history" (p. 15), yet surely such researchers do not exhaust the realm of potential candidates for the study of American book history. Their discussion of "general sources" neglects or obscures such general sources as subject bibliographies, author bibliographies, and publishers' bibliographies. Writing about "trade papers" (pp. 16-17), the Zborays do not indicate that such papers are not exactly disinterested and unimpeachable sources, although they understand and convey the limitations of other forms of evidence clearly enough. When they tell their reader that "the information appearing in . . . [trade] directories can be entered into a computer database to yield significant results" (p. 17), they do not write carefully enough to make their meaning clear. The computer, of course, does not do the analytical work. They also offer no advice about how to massage data to yield significant results. When the Zborays address a sophisticated research community as opposed to the "people" whose interests in book history their introductory pages invoke (e.g., pp. 17, 18), they typically give their professional language no context. The "people" will find little help in understanding either what such issues might signify or how to use primary sources to generate data to illuminate them. For the Zborays, all this is second nature. For the reader of an introductory Handbook, it may be nothing of the sort. A text that does not know if it is addressing its authors and their peers, on the one hand, or novices, on the other, is a text that has not thought through its own purpose.
The Zborays veer unpredictably between highly sophisticated sections and sections that seem inadequate to the needs of students. For example, they trace printing unions back to the eighteenth century (p. 44) but earlier trade organizations, such as those found in sixteenth-century Lyon by N. Z. Davis, go unremarked (because they are not "American"?). Bindings, the Zborays write, can be linked, "just by their look," to particular craftspeople. But their omission of reference to tools, patterns, and techniques leaves this linking process an unfathomable mystery. Two-and-a-half pages (47-49) apparently exhaust all that can be said about the artifactual value of physical books. Censorship merits but one paragraph (p. 50). While the Zborays invoke "hypothetical readers" (p. 58), "the functions of reading" (p. 68), and "the 'ideology' of literacy" (p. 68), none of these relatively sophisticated concepts is usefully defined for any imaginable user of such a text, novice or pre-professional graduate student. A section on "institutional consumers" of books includes "libraries" and "schools" but omits colleges and universities -- an omission that, in context, seems simply bizarre.
In their conclusion (pp. 77-79), the Zborays privilege their own research by noting that
Perhaps the most important new direction [in book history studies] has been the rise of the history of reading. . . . It promises a firmer connection to cultural history than was possible through the study of authorship or publishing, for both of these approaches had to rely heavily upon some theoretical structure to attain any sense of larger significance (p. 78).
This passage makes a reviewer wonder whether what he had thought inadvertent flaws might be the consequence of the Zborays' view that, unlike bad old authorship- or publishing-based approaches to book history, which needed "some theoretical structure" to achieve meaning, good new reading-based approaches to book history can eschew theory altogether. Unencumbered by any need to think about the meaning or significance of what they are doing, reading-based book historians may compile facts for their own sake. When enough of them have been compiled, the historian will discover that they speak for themselves.
The entirety of the volume's apparatus -- a list of important periodicals for book historians; footnotes; and suggested readings (pp. 81-145) -- seems no more consistently useful than any other part of this text. Thus, for example, even though the Zborays publish in American Quarterly, it goes unmentioned. The library periodicals issued by Harvard, Brown, Iowa, NYPL, Huntington are listed. Those from Yale, Princeton, Syracuse, Texas, are not. The Library is not noticed; PBSA is. Whatever their rationale for these inclusions and exclusions may be, it is not evident. When, on page 31, the Zborays refer to Habermas and "the public sphere," as well as to republicanism, the spirit of capitalism, and liberalism, they provide a footnote. It mentions Habermas but provides no citation (n. 30, p. 88; the "Suggested Readings" does list the relevant work). But none of the other concepts conjured up by the Zborays is annotated. A citation to McKenzie's Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts is incorrect (n. 62, p. 91) although the book is cited correctly on p. 129. Generally speaking, proofreading is poor throughout the book. Any reader of a list of suggested readings will find favorites that have been omitted; it seems pointless to cite examples. Far more troublesome is the authors' failure to note reprints (e.g., of printers’ manuals) and abridgements (e.g., of Eisenstein). At first, one thinks this failure systematic, the result of a conscious decision, whether an agreeable one or not. But on p. 128, the Zborays cite the Oak Knoll reprint of Norma Levarie’s 1982 Art and History of Books but omit reference to the Oak Knoll (or any other) reprint of Fredson Bowers' 1949 Principles of Bibliographical Description. To inform new entrants to a field that reprints of its basic texts exist seems an essential service. But whether it is a service that authors provide or not is, perhaps, less important than the reader's assurance that it is provided (or not provided) consistently. Such certainty the Zborays' inconsistency denies their reader.P>The Zborays have set out to provide what a new field of study needs badly, an introductory handbook for novices entering the study of book history that will teach them how to navigate a subject now fashionable but still largely uncharted. Both the authors and the publisher of this Handbook are capable of good work and have done good work. This guide is not even close to the level of their best. Unhappily, bad guides may dissuade students from entering, repel rather than draw students into, a field. They may make a field sound pointless, dull, uninteresting, and stupid. They will surely not make it sound -- as this field emphatically is! -- exciting, a way to reinvigorate the study of intellectual history, of literature, of the physical book (manuscript or printed) itself. And yet their existence can all too easily discourage other, slower writers from producing better guides and entering into competition with a product "established" by virtue of its mere existence. (This is, in fact, a phenomenon is well known from book history, although not mentioned by the Zborays' text.)
This text’s basic failure is its refusal to explain what any novice has a right to expect of an academic handbook. Why does anyone care about this stuff? What does it have to teach us? Why do we study it? How do we study it? What kinds of evidence support its study, and how might those evidences be evaluated and compared?
A newly-discovered territory particularly needs a decent roadmap. This territory in fact remains open to writers better able to provide one. The time continues to be right for a good Handbook for the Study of Book History.
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