How is the history of the book different from literary criticism? Is establishing authorial authority in terms of book history really different from establishing authorial authority in literary criticism? Having studied different schools of literary criticism, and theorists including Barthes and Foucault, I have a difficult time accepting history of the book as a discipline separate from that of literary criticism. It’s quite easy to see how much of a correlation exists between literary criticism and the history of the book, especially when it comes to establishing authority for the reader and author, as well as effects authors and books have on society. While it is very interesting to see how some of the basic ideas of literary theories can be taken further with the use of quantitative and historical evidence that the history of the book provides, I’m not entirely convinced of their separation. I may be quick to judge, as I haven’t had much experience with or exposure to the characteristics of the history of the book, but I feel both disciplines have similar intents. The means to achieve an answer or insight may differ, but the overall goals are very similar.
To shed some light on my thought process, and thus hesitance with book history, I want to make use of Michel Foucault’s ideas from “What Is an Author?”. As mentioned in An Introduction to Book History, one of his biggest concerns is with authority of an author. More specifically, Foucault urges readers to question the authority given to an author. Why, for example, is Shakespeare highly regarded in our society? Is it because of the success of his plays during his time or presently? Is it because of its contents, the message it relays? These are some of the broader questions, which he answers by presenting the idea of the “author-function”, that the author is a part of the structure of the work and an indication of the authority of the work. We give these highly regarded books and authors authority just because it has become commonplace, almost a rule in our society to regard Shakespeare as important in literary history. The history of the book does, among other things, work to question authority and seems to answer much of these same questions, but does so in a more quantitative way.
By using material and quantitative aspects of a book to question authority, book history can contribute something different, and at times something even more significant. With Robert Darnton’s communication circuit, for example, one can see how different agents in the writing and publishing process affect the overall experience of a reader, somehow affecting their reception of the work. By analyzing materials and using quantitative methods to discover qualities of a book’s and author’s history, a more factual and statistical conclusion can be made in regards to authority and experience. Simon Eliot realized this need for quantitative analysis when working to determine the success of Walter Besant. He admits in “Very Necessary But Not Quite Sufficient” that without data, by just researching a few other writers and comparing them to Besant’s success, he wouldn’t be able to provide an accurate description of Besant’s success. While he was hesitant at first, the need for something more drove him to quantitative book history. He admits that it is a lot of work, which is suspected with the collection and analyzation of data, but overall achieved a greater significance of Besant’s success than he could in another way (286).
Just like Eliot, I can see the importance book history has as a discipline. With the use of quantitative support, book history can contribute valuable pieces of evidence to an ending conclusion about an author or a book that literary criticism alone could not provide. However, I am still curious and hesitant about the field of book history in general. So, my ending question: is it only the historical and quantitative aspects of the history of the book that separates it from literary criticism? I realize there are differences between both disciplines, but I find it a bit difficult to ignore the fact that overall, many of the schools in each discipline work to determine the authority and impact a text has on society or because of society. It seems although book history and literary criticisms have different ways of getting there, the overall destination is the same. Let me make clear that I am not at all trying to discredit the history of the book, I just am curious and, perhaps, overwhelmed by this new area of study. Maybe others can clear up my hesitation and point out what I’m missing. Perhaps I’m not placing enough importance on the material and quantitative aspects, but I am definitely interested in discovering what really separates the history of the book from schools of literary criticism.