Just Another School or Truly A Separate Discipline?

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.


3 thoughts on “Just Another School or Truly A Separate Discipline?

  1. “What really separates the history of the book from schools of literary criticism?” Perhaps the main difference is that while Literary Criticism is going to focus on the content of a text, Book History is more interested in the process of its publication, transmission, reading, etc… So whereas a Literary Critic might ask, “What impact did Shakespeare’s writing have on English Society?” a Book Historian might ask, “How were Shakespeare’s ideas transmitted to English Society and what does this tell us about the world at that time?” Literary Criticism might focus on the book as it exists in the world of ideas, whereas Book History is interested in its material and context. I don’t think that it’s only Book History’s use of quantitative methods that makes it different… does that accurately address your point?

    • Yes, that addresses my point. I think overall, I just need to learn more about the specifics of book history. Right now, we kind of just have a general overview and some examples of the studies that can be done. I think coming from a background where pretty much all my studies have been based on literary criticism makes it difficult to fully understand book history as of yet. While I see its importance because of the fact it studies different areas than literary theory, I still see a lot of connections between both fields. But, I guess that doesn’t necessarily mean they are entirely the same as I make it seem in my post. I’m definitely interested to see how processes of, like you mention, publication, transmission, and reading work differently in comparison to the processes of literary criticism.

  2. Definitely, there is more to be discovered and I think that reading examples of book history will help to clarify the methodologies and goals of the various approaches book historians take.

    One thing book history, beginning in the 1960s, responded to was the “new criticism” or “close reading,” which was fashionable in the 1930s-1950s (and beyond), and which emphasized a close reading of the text as an artifact, with little or no reference to a larger context. Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, New Historicism changed all of this and, to some extent, book historians breathed the same air, with some additional grounding in the physical object and contexts of the text.

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