Old Books and New Histories by Leslie Howsam: a review

What do you do if you want to gain an overview of what book history is, without having to read much book history. In my case, the answer is to wander into the Blackwell’s in Broad Street, Oxford, browse the bay devoted to books on the book trade and book history, and discover Old books and new histories: an orientation to studies in book and print culture by Leslie Howsam (University of Toronto Press, 2006).

This is a slender book. The main text runs to just over seventy pages. The first (somewhat leisurely) chapter sketches a disciplinary map of book history in the form of a triangle between history, literature (that is, literary studies), and bibliography. The second adds detail to that sketch. The third introduces models of book history, such as Robert Darnton’s ‘communication circuit’ model. The fourth chapter, which is the most lively, considers the implications that each approach to book history has for the way we conceptualise books. The final chapter extends this discussion by focuses on various ways in which books may be seen as mutable.

All this, plus the couple of dozen pages of notes and references, is rather helpful in terms of providing the overview I was seeking. Howsam is an historian and inevitably the book reflects that bias, as he acknowledges.

The main weakness, I think, is the unacknowledged exclusion of some disciplines. Though works of sociology receive some discussion, no clear view of the contribution of that discipline emerges: the index entry for ‘sociology of texts’ reads ‘See bibliography’. There is mention of translation, but no discussion of translation studies. And linguistics doesn’t seem to feature within Howsam’s horizons.

But then you can’t do everything in one book.



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