The Study of Book History

As we have completed this course, we have learned the various ways to understand the field of book history. It is a large field that is aimed at studying every aspect of the book in order to figure out whatever questions may surround it. Now that books are being digitized, it’s curious to think how the entire field will be reformed in the future. Right now, I find it difficult to think that book history will be changed because of e-readers, but in a century or two, there could be considerable change. 

We learned about different book historians and what parts of books they focused on, some of them choosing to study the physical parts of books– namely book sleeves. Could this still be a possibility with digital texts? It’s hard to imagine, a lot of the presentation of the text will be removed with digitized texts, where the focus is primarily the communication of text. I think that this can be both good and bad. I personally have to problem with digital text as many readers do– the whole “it’s destroying the integrity of reading” argument or whatever, where there is something wrong about everything being made digital. We looked at articles that had both sides of the argument, but I’m still undecided.

While I don’t have a kindle or any e-reader, I am considering buying one. I hate reading off of my computer, I find it far too distracting and often am unable to do close readings of texts. I think that reading off a kindle with digital texts would make procrastination less appealing. Also, I think it’s environmentally responsible to use a kindle versus paper, so that is appealing to me as well. I am slightly paranoid that one day the electronic grid will collapse and by then all our texts will be digital and eventually be lost. So while I think converting texts to fit the screen is a good idea, it could very easily backfire and set civilization back a few centuries, worst case scenario. 

Looking at screens is also uncomfortable on my eyes, and I definitely do it enough, so reading off a kindle or tablet could be overexposure to backlights. There is still something very cathartic about closing my computer and turning off my phone and picking up a book before I go to bed. I think that this is important in that you can have both, I don’t think that once you buy a kindle it means you stop reading off of paper. It just happens less. 

I can’t really say how this may affect book history, I can’t even say with authority that it will affect book history. The field may not change at all, it may just be easier to find information than it was before. But I think it will, just looking at how other mediums have changed because of the internet and digitalization. Music is so much more accessible now, people can produce their own music and sell it right from their computer. Similarly, movies are now being seamlessly streamed to screens. This seems like a huge step in the right direction. It would be interesting if authors could sell PDFs of their books of their websites, eliminating the need for publishers. Of course that opens the door to piracy, which would certainly affect the industry. Perhaps this will shape how we read and study books in the years to come.


Responses to Conferences

I really enjoyed everyone’s presentations. I thought this was definitely a great way to show our classmates more definitively how we were getting on with our work in a way our papers couldn’t. Because the paper is aimed at combining quantitative data with analysis, I think a presentation is a great way to communicate research efforts and conclusions. 

Brie’s work translated very well into a presentation, and it was nice to see how she has already improved on her paper. It made a strong effort to introduce Woolf to the audience and then transition into her work on Three Guineas. We got to see her history and how her transformation into a feminist writer was somewhat unexpected. I also thought that it was interesting to see how her association with the suffragette movement was somewhat distant, as they were guilty of violence that conflicted with Woolf’s feminist views. 

I was also interested by Abby’s presentation. It really showed how incredible some databases are and what we can infer about society and the past because of them. I think it was a relevant topic with important findings. Equality in the workplace is something that is still being questioned today, as men make far more on average than women. It’s reassuring that we have made some big strides compared to our past. 

Ira’s was an interesting examination of the correlation between page length and popularity. I was actually surprised to learn that there was no correlation between the length and popularity, because I think people are very reluctant to pick up a large book because you have to commit so much to a book of that length. Books are so engaging and if you aren’t in love with what you are reading, it’s basically impossible to continue on with it. Looking at your data, I think it would be fair to assume that there is some optimal page length within 300-400 pages. This makes sense to me, I really think that a strong majority of books fall in that length.

I had already read Jeff’s paper but I think he has made some nice strides on his work. I like the decision to expand on expansion as a whole, rather than just focus on Seeley. It’s very difficult to find useful information on authors, even famous ones. I think that focusing on Seeley’s popularity and how it may or may not relate to the decline of the English empire would be an interesting direction.

Finally, Tim’s presentation was very unique. I was honestly blown away by how many books his sister has read, but to actually input them into a database and review them showed some pretty serious dedication. I think it had a strong conclusion to. Your sister definitely didn’t fall under the typical teen girl audience, but I think that regardless of her not liking the Twilights and Sisterhood books, she doesn’t fall under any typical readership with such a giant library. 

I really liked these presentations and hope that everyone’s papers turn out great.

Comment on Republican Literature

I think that this was well conducted research without a particularly interesting conclusion. This hurt the article, but I still found a lot of the work done to be engaging. There were a few things I took away from this writing to apply within my own research project which I will list. There was a lot about this journal that will be helpful to keep in mind while researching and writing my paper.

1. Context matters: Perhaps the most interesting thing about this paper was the background given to the magazine– actually everything that had little to do with the findings was what I found most enjoyable to read. I think that explaining the idea of what the American republic was at the time was very important to the paper. Explaining the history of the magazine was not crucial to the conclusion, but I enjoyed learning about it regardless. Because I found nothing particularly gripping about the findings from the research, I think it only highlighted the importance of the previous information. I really got a good sense of what the magazine was like and how it came about. It’s an interesting thing to go into detail about, but the data didn’t necessarily wow me to any degree. Making the reader interested in what you are writing about and giving them a solid background on it will make them more likely to respond positively to your own findings. I think the numbers would have meant very little to me if not for the work done to introduce it.

2. Find something interesting to investigate: This is more a matter of preference, but I think that the most telling thing about the American people via information on the magazine would be why it failed. Hypothetically, let’s say The New Yorker ended up going out of print or going out of business, whatever the appropriate term is. I think that the most important thing to look at would be why such a popular magazine of multiple decades suddenly went under. Perhaps it’s easier to say simply because of that being a current thing, but if it were due to the increasing popularity of tablets and the decreasing demand for magazines, I think that would suggest a lot more about society and ideals of the people at the time rather than what was being published in it or who was reading it. But content does matter, although I don’t think a hugely popular magazine suddenly fails to sell, it’s very gradual. The fact that the New York magazine failed to established itself is something that could have been explored more, but maybe the information wasn’t available or not as crucial to the writer as it is to me.

3. Data is less important than other things: I’m having trouble finding data that pertains to my research. Because Moby Dick was a failure, the sales weren’t recorded very diligently. Similarly, it’s hard to find data that states when the book became very popular. While this is frustrating, I think things other than tangible data are more important to understanding the history of Moby Dick and how it became prominent and what effects this had on society and American literature. 

I think that if you approach a journal entry with the intent to entertain as much as inform, the study becomes much better. It’s hard to make someone interested in a magazine published right after the American Revolution, but I think Nord did a good job of this. It was when I was reminded it was a research paper that my attention began to fade.


If Melville Did Research Too

I would be lying if I said that this research process hasn’t frustrated me. I’ve contemplated abandoning my project and looking at something more modern where data is far more readily available. That may still be the outcome, but I am interested in the topic of Romanticism and the rise of the Great American Novel, and I want to know more about it. This class is about book history, so I think it makes the most sense to write a paper about our own history of literature. I chose Moby Dick because I thought their would be an absurd amount of data on it. After hours of looking, I decided to look at the Wikipedia page for The Great American Novel,” because that is what Moby Dick is, after all. The first novel ever published to be considered “The Great American Novel,” was indeed Moby Dick. The page defines this as the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. If this book was the first book to establish this standard that nearly every American author aspires to reach, there has to be something that works as a starting point. So I naturally took the easy way out and clicked the endnote for Moby Dick.

This took me to Oxford Online Journals, even logged in through U-M they still asked me to pay for it, of course. Next source.

This is what makes researching the Great American Novel so difficult. It’s not the relevance of it and how it completely summarized the feelings of a people who died long ago, it’s not the failure to keep records on books sales or popular books of the time, it’s not the amount of publishing firms visited or pages Melville had to write to make this novel complete, it’s the unavailability of scholarly articles.

I figured then that my best starting point would to be to read anything on Moby Dick that would give me a starting point, so I searched in Google “Moby Dick Great American Novel,” one result was an essay, a free one at that, on what made the novel so American. This was written by Joyce Carol Oates, a prominent living American author. In her most strong and important point with regards to my research on its influence on American literature, she says–

“Like all great works of art, Moby Dick will support many readings, many interpretations. Yet, chapter by chapter, its meanings are not at all obscure; if Fedallah and the other members of Ahab’s “shadow crew” have a symbolic significance, for instance, Ishmael will tell us what it is, just as he will tell us what Pip’s terrible madness means, and how it relates to us all. Indeed, repeated readings of Moby Dick confirm one’s sense of Ishmael/Melville as a voice of remarkable subtlety, intelligence, and variety; and though it has often been charged against Melville that his narrator “disappears” into the narration, one might argue that the novel’s innumerable voices (in the dramatized sections, for instance) are but ingenious manifestations, recollected after the fact, of the novel’s central voice. (By which I mean that, as Ishmael has escaped the catastrophe and is, indeed, the sole survivor, the “authentic” chronicle he tells us is purely his.)” [1]

This is also fundamental to understanding the genre of romanticism. When Melville goes into such depth about fisheries, it’s hard to understand why this novel is considered to be a masterpiece, let alone good. But that is the very nature of romanticism and the reason why it became such a popular novel. The freedom of writing a romantic novel is why eventually this story became so American. This was a time during which every standard for art was being challenged and perhaps that explains why Melville was largely forgotten after his death. Was it too challenging a novel? Was it not challenging enough? This is the goal of my research. To find the initial reaction to the novel, the period of which it went largely ignored, its resurgence into relevancy, and ultimately its boom and status as the first “Great American Novel.” I can only hope my research gets easier.

[1] – Oates, Joyce C. “Moby Dick: An American Book of Wonders.” University of San Francisco. N.p., 1988. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

The Emergence of Moby Dick

I am having a difficult time deciding what I want my research project to focus on, but I have a general idea. After the readings we have done on the colonization of India, I wondered if America underwent a similar experience. Since both countries were colonized by Great Britain, I suspect that our own history of literature underwent a similar experience. In another class I am taking this semester, my teacher said that after colonization, the US was not taken seriously as a literary nation. As we have seen in readings, the texts the people enjoyed were probably all religious related– with a small few reading non-secular publications. It was not until the mid 19th century that American literature began to form an identity. During this time, romanticism was becoming a popular and respected genre that garnered the attention of not just the American people, but a significant portion of the world.

One of the most popular books in American literature and a leading work in Romanticism, Moby Dick, was a commercial failure and not well received. Eventually, it became the book it is today– widely read and widely bought. I would like to further explore its publication history, its failure to sell, and ultimately how it became such a staple for the average reader. Its popularity is still questionable– the long detailed pages on the anatomy of whales, the chapters on the process of removing the fat– not particularly accessible or open to the average reader. But because of its popularity, information on the text and its infamous failure to sell are certainly available.

My first thought was to use the Michigan Library catalog. Mirlyn and JSTOR both have plenty of academic journals on Moby Dick. I have had trouble finding some one its publication history and the general, but I think the internet would have plenty on it, likely more than academic journals. The journals could be better for the history surrounding the novel and how it established itself among literature. The wikipedia page for Moby Dick has a lengthy section on the publication history of the novel, so it would not be difficult to find how the book was put into print.

Ultimately the most difficult thing to find will be records of what books were popular at the time during its publication. I looked at the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and could not find anything on book records of the time, but it had a good amount on Moby Dick itself. Finding out more on how Moby Dick became a popular novel probably will not be terribly difficult, but records on what non-secular books were popular are going to be difficult to come by.

Effective Data Visualization

Much like charts and tables, data visualization can be both effective and ineffective. Its goal in the most basic sense is to present data, much like a table or a chart, but it attempts to do this in a more visually stimulating way than your standard bar graph or stripped down table. If the data is not particularly dense, it can be a much better way to show an idea. One of the examples of graphs we looked at showed the price of a barrel of oil and how it has gone up over the years. The price was represented by actual barrels of oil, and as the price went up, the barrel grew in size. This isn’t particularly the most effective way to show that price per barrel is rising, but it gives a general idea of it in an interesting way. If the article is less focused on the raw data and facts, and rather focuses on analysis or something about how culture or society has adjusted to oil price raises, this type of data presentation is very good.



I pulled this map off a website called and was under their article The 33 best tools for data visualization. This is a good example of how data visualization is actually very effective. A table could show which states each president came from, or which states produced the most presidents, a chart could do this as well. We’ve seen this done a hundred times and it’s just no longer exciting or interesting. For this picture, it shows a portrait of each president and which state he was born in. This is much more attention grabbing, obviously. But it also has it’s worth beyond aesthetics– it shows how concentrated the area from which most presidents come from is. Generally, they are all from the East Coast, with a few from Texas. One was born in California, and obviously Obama was born in Hawaii. It shows how the East Coast has monopolized the presidency and how the western US is not represented in the White House at all. 

That said, this type of visualization has it’s limit. If you asked where Franklin Pierce was born, you couldn’t find the info from this picture. You could say he was born on the East Coast, probably somewhere in New England, but something like this definitely fails at showing and highlighting the specifics that tables and graphs are far stronger at illustrating. For some essays, data visualization can present data into a visually stimulating representation. For an academic paper or something that isn’t for entertainment purposes, a table or chart will always be preferred. 

Making Sense of Data

A table is the most simple and concise way for data to be compiled into an image. If it does its job correctly, it will quickly present variables and their values and illustrate what point is being made in the surrounding paragraphs far more effectively than words could. In the Gillmore reading, tables are used effectively to illustrate points throughout the text. One of the more complicated tables is shown below.


At first glance, this table seems to be presenting too much information. It is hard to make sense of all the values and what they mean, why does he continuously meander between percentages and sums? On a more in depth analysis, it becomes much easier to make sense of. As broad as the graph is, it is fairly easy to make sense of. He is dividing each family library by content, which expresses how many libraries there are and how many volumes there are. Because he gives us the amount of libraries in Windsor, and the total number of volumes there are, including percentages isn’t entirely necessary, but it is helpful. What I found most challenging about the graph was actually trying to make sense of the variables. He goes into little to no detail about what a “sacred intensive library” might include. He uses intensive and extensive to divide certain libraries, but doesn’t explain how he determined what books might be on the shelves on a secular intensive vs a secular extensive library. While he presented the data effectively, it was hard to make sense of a lot of it simply because he didn’t go into great lengths to explain how these two libraries would differ. He creates a category for Sacred Intensive-Extensive, but there is already one for Sacred Intensive. It doesn’t really hurt the table, because I can still make sense of what is being presented, but it was hard to understand each type of library makeup and eventually I became more fixated on trying to figure out what each library was rather than how big it was and how this compared to the rest of the libraries. 

To present this info on a graph wouldn’t be terribly difficult. You could use a histogram to show the levels for each library– the type of library would be on the x axis and the amount of libraries would be on the left y axis. For each type of library, a bar would be at the value for number of libraries. On this histogram, you could place a line to correspond with the right y axis that would show percent of all libraries. The same type of graph could be done with volumes. This explanation further proves that data is best shown visually. In this case, a table is preferred. There isn’t some overwhelming trend that needs to be shown here, so a graph would do its job, but not any better than a table would. In any case you would probably need two or three graphs to show all the data in the table, which makes comparisons of them more difficult. The table, though not pretty, most effectively shows exactly what Gillmore is trying to explain.


I read a lot of the same stuff

I wasn’t really surprised at my data, most of the stuff in my college library are books I haven’t read yet but most of them are books I intend to read. I bought most of them for leisure reading, as an English major I rarely get time to do this and am often forced to wait until summer to read the books I really want to read. The majority of the books on my shelf are fiction from the 1900s– I suppose most of it could be classified under postmodernism. I don’t know what that suggests about my reading habits, I generally like that genre more and think the writing is the most accessible, while still being profound to an extent. The date average might have jumped back a few years if I had taken the data earlier, but I returned Moby Dick to Hatcher before I compiled the data and thus it did not make the cut.

I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the writers I am into are male. I think that this is as coincidental as it is intentional. While I don’t actively avoid literature written by women, I’m much more drawn to books written by men. More than likely this is because I relate more to the concerns or idea raised in their books rather than that written by a woman. I think that its a normal thing to be more inclined to read a book by someone of your own gender, though it definitely is more of a stigma for men than women in my experience. Men are far less open to reading a book about a woman than a man, but this is not the case with women as much. I assume the same would carry over to the author. But this is only my small library at college, and not representational of my reading habits of the past. I’ve read plenty of books written by women about women; my list makes me seem like I’m only drawn to certain styles and ideas. This was my first concern about my list.

My second concern was the glaring absence of school books. While several of the books were for school, they were novels. This does have an explanation– I try to rent most of the textbooks I get for school and thus they are never shelved. I decided to buy most of the paperback novels for a class because they were only slightly more expensive to buy (at most one dollar) than to rent, and they are books I am much more open to keeping than a bulky, ten pound book about Shakespeare. I only had four non-fiction books, and three of them could be considered non-fiction novels. The only one that was strictly information was The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the second longest book on my list. I got this for pleasure but it’s heavy (literally and figuratively), but something I am interested in. I generally don’t like non-fiction but in some cases it is very interesting.

My reading list is pretty representational of my habits and taste. The books are all reasonable length with the exception of a couple. Most of them are recently published– the oldest is Tropic of Cancer, but I’m looking at the book now and it is pretty new looking, I simply couldn’t find another date. I think paperback and hardcover would have been an interesting statistic to look at, I feel like hardcover is far more fit to survive the test of time in terms of durability. That said, I think that each category is fairly true to how I like my books.


The Transition from Talk to Text

In chapter 2, the focus shifted from the methods of book historians to a brief history on how the modern book came to be. Initially, thoughts were translated orally– the writings we see today that came pre-Gutenberg were (most likely) communicated orally. While the presence of papyrus and scrolls aided the learning and memorization process, they were unreliable and flimsy means to contain knowledge. However, the problem remained as did the question of how many books and writings were lost because of this method of “book keeping.” Socrates believed that “nothing worse serious attention has ever been written in prose or verse,” (34) one of the greatest minds of all time was a firm disbeliever in the need for written text as a means of transporting knowledge. This certainly carried on far past his time; the unspoken belief was that if you make more books readily available for the lower classes, the power structure would rapidly change.
As the mass production of books became an industry in the 1600s, the entire sphere of knowledge developed. As Walter Ong stated–

more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness

This holds true today; the most common format of reading in America, and most likely the world, is digital. The majority of human thought is presently shaped by what we read on a screen. This is most common through the Internet, as no invention has so greatly changed human thought and ideas since the Gutenberg press (though I personally believe the Internet is the most important intellectual creation to date). The ideas that are most commonly shared by human beings were published via text, the limitless internet has only magnified the permanence of these texts, and consequently these ideas, far more so that the printing press. Regardless, the idea that text is becoming less and less important with regards to society can’t be true, we would be looking at a far less informed society than the one we are currently living in.
I personally found the writing on the Nambikwara tribe the most interesting thing covered yet. It presents language and writing as a very abstract concept that we rarely think about. We assign symbols meanings that are universally accepted, however in a tribe with no alphabet or concept of written language, this idea is lost. This presents the idea of a common language; English was a difficult language to document as writing became popular– as dialect was so diverse, it was difficult to establish the correct way to spell things. As the country became “smaller,” differences in spelling became far fewer. Despite language just “happening,” writing was planned. There was a need for a system in which words could be recorded via text. So while the internet certainly is a solid number 2, the greatest invention ever with regards to knowledge and thought is the alphabet.

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.