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Books as History: A Review

In the last few months David Pearson has come out with a revised edition of his 2008 book Books as history: the importance of books beyond their texts.  This book, published by Oak Knoll Press and the British Library discusses the ways in which books, as objects, beyond the text they carry, should be studied as historical  artifacts.

Book Cover

In the book, Pearson explains the evolution of books as objects.  He traces developments in paper technology, binding, illustration, and printing to show how each of these processes contributed to the final product.  Particular emphasis is put on the uniqueness of individual books before the advent of mass production.  This is used as one of the primary reasons for the preservation of ‘old books’ rather than the adoption of digital surrogates which simply re-create the text.

One of the reasons for this new revised edition, is to address many of the developments in digital books and surrogates which have rapidly expanded over the last few years.  The first chapter of this book discusses new technology like the Amazon Kindle.  Though this chapter is freshly revised, and recently published its perspective on the ever quickening pace of technological innovation seems dated already.  (Highlighting one of the problems with printed books).  Pearson believes that the time when books will no longer be the primary means of transmitting ideas is in the forseeable future (if not already here), and that in light of that we need to reconsider our relationship to books and libraries.  In these chapters, Pearson is at his most successful, provoking thought and encouraging mindfulness in our interactions with books.

Since this text focuses on the appearance and physical aspects of books, it should be no surprise that it is beautiful in and of itself.  Perhaps resembling a coffee table book more than your average academic tome, it sports glossy images on nearly every page.  These visual examples are perhaps the most valuable part of the book.  Because of these images, Pearson’s work would make an excellent introductory textbook for bibliographical studies or the history of the book.  For institutions that lack rare books collections, or historical libraries, Pearson’s book provides and excellent opportunity to view the physical characteristics of the objects he discusses.  This is further enhanced by a concise list of further reading and a visual case study at the end of the book.

I have two slight criticisms to offer.  The first, which has been noted before, would be that the images in the book are often separated from the text in which they are discussed making for awkward flipping between pages.  The second, is that the book has a very heavily English bias.  While this is understandable given the author’s position as the Director of Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery at the City of London, this may make it less-relateable to readers who are not familiar with English history and literature.

Overall, this book is well worth a read for anyone interested in book history.  The relatively inexpensive price, at less than twenty pounds, makes it a worthy investment as an introduction to the bibliographic arts for students or enthusiasts.

 

 

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