I’ll admit, I was very hesitant about book history at the beginning of the term. Coming from a background that emphasizes literary criticism, I didn’t understand how book history could contribute anything to someone’s understanding of a book, author, etc. How could using quantitative methods really contribute to the comprehension of a book or success of an author? At the start of the class I saw book history and literary criticism as two very different entities, one that seemed much more plausible and the other that was this strange being, which probably came from me creating a huge separation between the two, I didn’t see book history as anything like literary criticism, which is probably where my lack of understanding came from. So, as a way to wrap up the term and these blog posts, I figured I’d conclude with the question I asked at the beginning of the term:
How is the history of the book different from literary criticism?
I feel like the best way to answer this question is to look at the history of the book as a behind-the-scenes (and after-the-scenes, if you will) look at a text or author, in a sense. With book history you can get a better sense of the significance of a book without focusing solely on the words in a book. You can look at the material of a book, the production history, the readership, etc, all things that will reveal these interesting details about a book. While some of the conclusions drawn may be similar to those that can be drawn from a book, it does so in a very different manner.
Take the Shakespeare example that I mentioned in my first blog post. Shakespeare is a highly regarded author in our society, but why? The forms of literary criticism that I am more familiar with may say it’s because he contributed to the English language, that the themes of his works are universal, and many other things. However, with book history, you can use methods to analyze his popularity and high regard in the details beyond the text. When was it that his popularity began to grow? Was it immediate or did it come much later? How do his works and the contexts in which they were written relate? There are a myriad of questions that can be asked and answered, and book history helps in answering these questions from a perspective that I never really considered, or even thought possible.
It’s been fascinating to expand my knowledge in general, from what I know as literary criticism to how to use quantitative methods in a humanities field. Specifically, I’ve been able to combine my love of language with book history, using the methods I’ve learned to look deeper into the significance language can have on society. While I could have simply read articles or analyzed the contents of a dictionary to get a similar conclusion, I don’t think the conclusions I’ve made in my paper would have been as significant or interesting without the statistical analysis or the analysis of readers. Simple, maybe, but I’m really glad I was able to learn about book history as a discipline and expand my horizons beyond the more traditional forms of literary analysis. It’s really been a great semester!