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David McKitterick’s latest book is a very readable and highly enjoyable expansion of the Lyell Lectures in Bibliography, which he delivered at the University of Oxford in 2000. The volume concentrates on issues of stability and instability in the history of book production from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. McKitterick’s focus is the whole of Western Europe, not just Britain, and his examples are not only literary, but are drawn from a wide array of texts and genres. The scope of the book is vast, and it is hard not to be awed by the breadth of McKitterick’s knowledge. Despite the range of genres, nations, and historical periods discussed, McKitterick easily holds his readers’ attention and interest by adhering to a clear argumentative and descriptive path. For readers of this journal, the second half of the book--Chapters 5-9--will be of greatest immediate interest, as they cover the developments of print in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the first five chapters, however, will not fail to fascinate and educate.
The first chapter provides an overview of the central concerns of the book. Here McKitterick discusses the relationships between the disciplines of historical and textual bibliography, literary criticism, library science, the history of reading, and the history of the book, suggesting that misunderstandings and gaps in communication between these related fields have seriously hindered our comprehension of books, their readers, and their production. This is a subject to which he returns, and further develops, in the final chapter. McKitterick stresses the need to understand the “link between bibliographical form and its public meaning,” because “[h]ow and to what extent we comprehend the ways by which thought and knowledge have been shared and interpreted for five hundred years among authors, printers, publishers, and readers, depends on understanding their medium” (19). He focuses specifically on the divorce of manuscript and print studies within the disciplines and, in this and the subsequent two chapters, he explores how the two media are interrelated and mutually dependant.
Chapters 2 and 3, which focus on text and images respectively, show that print did not immediately supplant manuscript production, but that the process was one of gradual displacement, with manuscript production continuing in various guises through the seventeenth century. Similarly, ways of thinking about manuscript and print shifted slowly. The media were used and combined in varying ways based not only on social and economic factors (on which scholars usually focus), but also on specific contexts and pressures related to the private needs and interests of individuals. Concrete examples, with very useful illustrations, are provided in order to demonstrate how books could be, and indeed were, personalised and modified by authors, printers and readers at different stages of production. This discussion highlights the problems inherent in our conceptualisation of printed books as complete, finished, stable or identically uniform products. McKitterick elucidates, here and indeed throughout subsequent chapters, that books are highly unstable entities constantly subject and susceptible to alteration in form and meaning.
“[T]his innate instability of printed texts” is further discussed in chapter 4, as McKitterick, building on the examples provided in chapters 2 and 3, argues that texts “are always mobile---at the time of writing, at the time of publication, and over the course of time, quite apart from in the hands of different readers” (97). Widening the discussion, here he explores the varying reactions of readers and authors to this instability, questioning their expectations of constancy and consistency when faced with printed texts. He delves deeper into how texts of (what in bibliographic terms are considered to be) the same edition or impression differ, and into the range of methods employed to deal with errors in printed books. He concludes that variant copies were the expected and accepted norm, and that the printing process can be accurately characterised by both standardisation and variation.
Moving into the later half of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, chapter 5 looks at this environment of variety, and it questions what printers, authors, and readers understood by perfection and imperfection in relation to printed books. A fascinating exploration of post-publication censorship allows McKitterick to further investigate the variable nature of texts. Little work has been done on the effects of this type of censorship on texts and readers, and so this discussion is a very welcome addition to the field. Shifting regulations and directives in the indices legislating censorship coupled with variations in the degree to which correctors implemented the required corrections, mean that rather than controlling texts, the censorship process made texts more variable and further destabilised. Again, McKitterick illustrates that the idea of a stable, finished book is but an illusion.
The eighteenth century witnessed shifts in attitudes toward the press on the part of readers, authors, and printers, which predate the long-term technological advances in printing. The changes among publishing booksellers and their relationships with authors are well known, but in chapters 6 and 7, McKitterick shows that attitudes were also modified as a result of a new public interest in the art, history, and technicalities of printing. In these chapters, the alterations and developments are also positioned within the larger cultural context of learning and improvement which dominates the period, and within the context of contemporary preoccupations with language and linguistic and grammatical accuracy and uniformity. This period is one of dissatisfaction with printing technology, largely unchanged since the fifteenth century, and one of great experimentation as professional printers and amateurs sought improvements in the speed and quality of the press. This striving for manufacturing precision was not seen in earlier periods, and because of transformations in industry such changes were finally possible, as shown in chapter 7. Chapter 7 also contains a fascinating exploration of the connection between printing and language debates, which shows how together they lead to the production of printers’ grammars and to the implementation of printing-house rules.
Chapter 8 looks at different ways whereby individuals sought to understand the meaning of print and at how print affected knowledge acquisition and the dissemination of information. Throughout the eighteenth century, the possibilities and limitations of print were discussed with greater frequency and the old anxieties (which date back to the sixteenth century) regarding the inability to control and determine audience and reception resurfaced. In this chapter, the printing industry is also placed within the larger context of the shifting attitudes in manufacturing that lead to higher demands for standardisation, accuracy, and quality, some of which were answered with new technological advances such as the stereotype, and all of which led to shifts in expectations and desires. Further technological advances are discussed in chapter 9. This ninth and final chapter also returns to consider ideas introduced in the first chapter, as McKitterick calls for a greater degree of integration of literary criticism and bibliographic studies--a concern that underlies the book in its entirety.
This book aims to show the instability of print, which is inherent throughout the process of book production, as the book moves from author to printer to reader. McKitterick admirably and clearly demonstrates that from the advent of printing through the nineteenth century, print was understood as both a tool for standardisation and as an unstable medium in constant flux. Reactions to the textual instability that McKitterick describes are various and they depend on individual authors, printers, and readers, on the text in question, and on individual goals, aims and circumstances. This variety of attitudes is illustrated through the abundant and effective use of examples in the book. The examples are wide-ranging and carefully chosen, allowing the reader to watch the argument develop. While McKitterick sketches the broad outlines and larger tendencies in each period, he avoids generalisations and uses specific examples to highlight a range of attitudes held by different individuals. This is an excellent, challenging, and highly rewarding book that will be appreciated by literary scholars of the late fifteenth through the early nineteenth century, as well as by those interested in bibliography, the history of the book, and the history of reading.