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Austin Chronicle A Book for Bibliophiles

FEBRUARY 15, 1999: 

A BOOK FOR BIBLIOPHILES

The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making
by Adrian Johns
University of Chicago Press, $40 hard

In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns transports us to northern Europe during the first 200 years of the printing press and in so doing raises questions about every modern assumption we have about books, publishing, and the formation of knowledge.

Johns is a historian of science and begins with the examples of Galileo and Tycho Brahe, the Danish nobleman and astronomer. Operating out of a formidable medieval castle-observatory, Tycho produced on an early press his observations on the heavens that he then hand-delivered to educated noblemen and early universities.

Controlling every step of authorship, printing, and distribution, Tycho thus avoided the principal problem that faced Galileo and every other author and printer in the 16th and 17th centuries: pirated texts and corruption in every step in the production and selling of the book. Just as one example, Johns cites the printing of Shakespeare's first folio. This landmark English language book "boasted some six hundred different typefaces, along with non-uniform spelling and punctuation, erratic divisions and arrangement, mispaging and irregular proofing." No two copies were alike and scholars have demonstrated that no one version is "typical" of what the Bard intended.

The bulk of Johns' heavily footnoted and densely written text is an examination of the technology of printing and the control of bookselling in early modern London. The need to establish "fixity" in texts and regular procedures in bookselling gave rise to two uniquely English institutions, the Royal Society and the Stationer's Company.

By the first decade of the 1600s, the Stationer's Company operated out of Stationer's Hall and was the focus of every aspect of the book trade. Members of the Company decided all issues relating to authorship, printing, binding, and bookselling, and was a center of intellectual life, hosting foreign writers and book agents and conducting elaborate ceremonial dinners. The hall also served as a warehouse for certain important works, particularly almanacs of knowledge. Politics were seldom far away from this building, and the power of the printed word and its control is a compelling subtext in this detailed history.

Most striking to the modern reader is Johns' presentation of what he calls the "sociology of knowledge." Figures lost in lists in Western Civilization classes come to vivid life here, including Robert Boyle, Oliver Cromwell, Daniel Defoe, Robert Hooke, Thomas Hobbes, and Christiaan Huygens. The advocacy of brilliant works that formed the modern age were by no means taken for granted when they were produced and the reminder of the struggle to create the early Western canon is bracing.

The Nature of the Book is a labor of love, including a 65-page, closely printed bibliography of manuscripts and secondary works. For those intrigued by this topic, two other books are recommended: Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy and Elizabeth Eisenstein's important two-volume work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe. -- Dick Holland


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