Which Method of Book History is Most Telling?

With the creation of the printing press, scattered writings were bound and ideas were allowed to be distributed to the masses. As the modern book began to take for, the process of writing and reading developed and changed. If there has been one consistent element to the process of printing and literary consumption, it would be the presence of supply and demand. Even as the medium was finding its footing, the focus on mass distribution remained similar– if something can sell, it will be published. This remains true today; while the process of printing and distribution has become far more streamlined with the creation of the digital printer, only books with a profitable niche will be published. This acts as an anchor for book history, while the process of selling and consuming changes over time, and as people’s tastes develop, the books that sell will be the ones that get published. 

However, these books may not last. A best seller from 1762 may be long forgotten, even nowadays with the internet constantly storing data, some books could very well be forgotten, in a more metaphorical sense. On the Amazon Best Seller list, there were numerous diet books coming in with high rankings. It would not be a surprise to never see one of these books near a best seller list again. Which books are remembered is far more dependent on the reader, and the content of it rather than the volume sales. This applies to book history, despite it dealing more so with literary criticism and history. However, the readings certainly beg the question of what really does help books survive? It could be taste and could be sheer volume of sales, it could be something entirely different. Perhaps the most reasonable look at how books survived was presented by Lucien Febvre. As the leader of the “Histoire du Livre” movement, his belief was that culture and books shared a mutually exclusive relationship– understanding books through culture, and culture through books. He also believed that not necessarily the most popular books were the ones that survived. This suggests that each book is different, and is remembered for a different reason, in many cases it could just be pure luck.

Bibliometrics is a far different school of thought, which examines book history through numbers. While authorial intent and the sociology of text is a far more open ended school of thought, statistics can paint a much more telling and accurate story. While the likes of Darnton and McKinzie looked to the literary and humane aspects in book history, Weedon examines purely numerical data. This definitely creates a less personal feel to the field of book history, but still has its role in it. While many book historians look to the content of the book to explain its history, the numbers can explain, with much more accuracy– how much a book sold, how often every year, the cost of printing and shipping, and perhaps even how much the book sold for at its time. This remains prevalent today; as the Bible was the most printed, published, and sold book at the invention of the printing press, that remains true now. The numbers associated with book history show us the past of book sales and can perhaps even predict trends for the future. Weedon also notes what an important role language plays, as did Febvre. As language in countries changed, so too would the demand for certain books. As Latin became less spoken in Europe, certain Latin texts would be discarded and forgotten. Weedon notes that this can happen today, as in South Afrika, English and African languages are becoming more popular in books read, but Afrikaans is fading in prominence.

In any case, both can provide valuable information. While both separate ways of analyzing a relatively new sect of history, they are important in examining the progress of literature and its affect on society.



2 thoughts on “Which Method of Book History is Most Telling?

  1. After this weeks reading, I am also particularly curious about ‘what makes books survive’? It seems that there is no formula. With an onslaught of variables (times, loss, disasters, popularity, prestige, ect.) I doubt there will really ever be a way to truly replicate the history of books–too much has already been lost. While most of the articles read note this issue, I fear none actually address its related implications. While I see the merit in focusing on the positive (albeit limited in book history), I also think that much can be revealed in studying what is missing. Often, it is what we don’t know that can shape what we do. Again, it is possible that the unknowns for book history are just too extreme, but I’m curious to see if this approach surfaces later in this class. I also hope to learn more about the modern conservation efforts for books–such loss is not one that should ever happen again.

  2. I, too, was struck by Weedon’s presentation of a summary of some research about South African publishing. While we might expect such a transformation of the publishing industry in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, without bibliometrics, we might not have a clear picture of the trends, which are interesting, and seem to reflect the interactions between politics, economics, and literary culture–books as a force for change.

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