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Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP)

Acceptance Remarks of Jonathan Rose for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP)

“From Book History to Book Studies”

This award is only the latest of many good things the American Printing History Association has done for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. SHARP has indeed grown at a very gratifying pace in its first decade, but we only achieved that success with the help of the APHA and other book-related organizations. You gave us advice, you publicized our work, you shared your mailing lists with us. What I once said about SHARP people applies equally well to our friends in the APHA: To work with such gracious and generous people, on a new frontier of human knowledge, is the most fun anyone can have within the confines of a university.

And the fun is just beginning. Over the past ten years SHARP has concentrated its energies on building the basic apparatus of institutionalized book history scholarship, getting courses and conferences and journals up and running. Now that that has been accomplished, let us move on to conquer new worlds. And I have a specific and highly ambitious proposal to place on the table. It is something far too big for SHARP alone to carry out: this will require the collaboration of the APHA and the entire constellation of organizations devoted to the book culture, including the Bibliographical Society of America, the International Association of Publishing Educators, the Library History Round Table, the Society for Textual Scholarship, and John Cole’s network of Centers for the Book. In this new decade, we should work together to create new academic programs in Book Studies, which will explore the past, present, and future of all forms of written and printed documents, including books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, letters, ephemera, and (yes) websites.

True, we already have new graduate programs in book history at (for example) the Universities of London, Toronto, Wisconsin, and South Carolina. But so far, they have been slow to attract students. My own program at Drew University has generated hundreds of inquiries, yet it enrolled no students at all in 1999 (its first year of operation) and only two in 2000. True, an impressive and growing students in traditional graduate programs in history, literature, and library science are writing dissertations on book history; but pursuing a degree in book history is quite another matter. Prospective applicants have asked me again and again, “What can I do with such a degree?” and I have never yet come up with a satisfactory answer.

If indeed free-standing book history programs fail to appeal to a wide constituency, then we as book historians must face the fact that we cannot go it alone. We must think in broader terms; we must reconceive our scholarly work as part of a larger academic project. I propose that we bring together, under one interdisciplinary umbrella, specialists in book history, printing history, the book arts, publishing education, textual studies, reading instruction, librarianship, journalism, and the Internet, and teach all these subjects as an integrated whole. In short, Book Studies would create a critical mass of everyone concerned with the exploration of script and print. And it would have the vocational component that Book History programs lack, preparing students for careers in new media, publishing, journalism, information science, and the book arts — though I suspect that the distinctions between these professions will break down over the next few decades.

The possibilities for intellectual crossfertilization in such a program would be terrific. Allow me to play Rod Serling for a moment and ask you to imagine, if you will, a core Book Studies seminar in the year 2010. It might include a doctoral student in religion who, drawing on his experience working in the university’s printshop and a papermaking shop, writes a dissertation casting quite a new light on the dissemination of theological polemics during the Reformation. A history student becomes interested in the history of information, and uses that knowledge to explain the organization of Diderot’s Encyclopedia. An education student contributes to the debate over bilingual education by exploring the Gaelic schools set up in Highlands Scotland two hundred years ago. A journalism major later goes to work for a media magnate, who puts her on a task force assigned to reinvent the idea of the newspaper; and because she studied both electronic publishing and the origins of newspapers in college, she is able to put aside ingrained assumptions about what a newspaper should be and suggest some genuinely creative alternatives. Just the other day the New York Times reported that mainstream publishers don’t quite know how to reach African-American readers, and they are still struggling with that problem in 2010; but then a bright young Book Studies graduate invents some successful marketing strategies, drawing on his study of book distribution networks in post-Emancipation black communities. (Hint: Work through the black churches.) An information studies student writes a term paper on crossreferencing systems developed by early modern librarians, and uses that knowledge to make electronic bibliographies more user-friendly. And a book arts student draws on her training in the history of typography to perfect software that allows complete amateurs to design their own typefaces.

I bluntly put the question to my fellow book historians: do you simply want to train more book historians, or do you want to teach to this much wider audience? If we build programs in Book Studies, that larger community of book-loving students will come. At one time they would have naturally gravitated to English departments, but nowadays they are likely to find there a mix of opaque theory, dismal ideology, and few real job prospects other than teaching composition as a perpetual adjunct. For these students, we should create an alternative route of literary studies, one which offers fresh horizons for innovative scholarship, practical applications in art and business, and the possibility of earning a decent living.

I can sum up my proposal in a single word. Once upon a time, professors studied literary works. Then, for the past 25 years or so, they studied texts. Now, we should redirect our attention to books. The problem with focusing on texts is that no one can read a text — not until it is incarnated in the material form of a book. It is perfectly legitimate to ask how literature has shaped history and made revolutions, how it has socially constructed race, class, and gender, this, that, and the other. But we cannot begin to answer any of these questions until we know how books (not texts) have been created and reproduced, how books have been disseminated and read, how books have been preserved and destroyed.

And apropos of that, disregard everything you’ve heard about “the death of the book”: the current crop of undergraduates is the most print-conscious generation in history. Every kid with a website can now play author, editor, publisher, bookseller, and book reviewer. Just as earlier generations of young people tinkered with radios, cars, and computers, this generation experiments endlessly with arranging words on a page. They are familiar with printshop terminology (font, leading, kerning); they often have a keen sense of the (electronic) literary marketplace; and they know a lot more about reader response than Stanley Fish. And just as the Vietnam generation passionately debated the origins of the Cold War, we should be able to interest these students in print history. After all, every one of them owns and operates a printing press — though they prefer to call it a printer.

Book Studies could also do a lot to educate media professionals. Not long ago I was approached by a fairly well-known New York publisher, who had a new idea which was really a revival of an old idea. His plan was to bring back the pamphlet, which had been the great polemical weapon of the nineteenth century, and use it once again to address to great intellectual controversies of today. I suggested (gently) that the literary marketplace, the machinery for book distribution, and the periodical press had all changed considerably over the past 150 years. Hence, a medium useful for Thomas Carlyle might be less practical for Camille Paglia. Evidently nothing came of the project: so far I haven’t seen any colporteurs in the Short Hills Mall hawking Edward Said and Norman Podhoretz. My point is that a publishing professional with formal training in Book Studies would better understand why this wouldn’t work — and, perhaps, might be better equipped to find a new way of making this work.

At any rate, this episode suggests that the world is potentially very interested in what we have to teach. Last October I had the privilege of joining a brilliant panel of book historians who had been invited to share their wisdom with the RAND Corporation, the legendary Santa Monica think tank. The RAND people put to us a straightforward question: Drawing on your knowledge of the printing press as an agent of change, tell us what the social impact of the Internet will be. We drew a deep breath, and began by disabusing them of a common fallacy, what might be called the Two Big Bangs Theory of printing history. Like most educated lay people, the folks at RAND assumed that there were two world-transforming developments in print technology: moveable type and the World Wide Web. Yes, we acknowledged, these certainly had revolutionary consequences — but then so did lithography, papermaking machines, stereotype plates, power-driven rotary presses, offset printing, halftone illustration, the linotype, the mimeograph, microfilm, xerography, photocomposition, and desktop publishing. Now, I don’t have to tell you that each of these new technologies tremendously enhanced the potential of print; I don’t have to tell you that they each had a remarkable impact on everyday social and economic life; I don’t have to tell you that, over the past two hundred years of printing history, change has been a constant. But all this has to be explained to a larger lay public out there. They are keenly interested in the Internet as an agent of change, they are wondering whether the book will be replaced by the e-book — and an education in Book Studies could give them the historical perspective they need to address these questions.

Now, I will not venture here to predict whether the e-book will catch on, but let me suggest another futuristic scenario. What if this new technology was being developed and refined in a Book Studies laboratory? What if specialists in the history of reading, the history of typography, the history of information, the history of printing, and the history of printing surfaces were working alongside the software engineers and the hardware engineers, offering a constant stream of advice about the interface between reader and print? Then, I strongly suspect, we could design this technology with a much better understanding of its limits and its possibilities.

Let me confess that the proposal I have briefly sketched here is not entirely original, certainly not in Europe. Book Studies programs already exist at four German universities (Mainz, Münster, Munich, and Erlangen) and at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The Gutenberg University in Mainz (which hosted the most recent SHARP conference) has had an Institüt für Buchwissenschaft operating since 1947. As the Erlangen website somewhat regretfully notes, “There is nothing quite like Buchwissenschaft abroad, so there cannot be an exact translation equivalent.” But the Book Studies idea may soon migrate to America. Such a program is now under serious consideration at the University of Iowa (with the support of the APHA), and a similar plan has been mooted at the University of Maryland at College Park. And that weekend at the RAND Corporation offered a delicious taste of what Book Studies could be like. When you bring together the best minds in the field, and ask them to attack a common problem, the light generated is absolutely thrilling. “Gosh,” I exclaimed at the end of it, “I’d love to teach in a department like this.” If we get to work on it now, we will.

Jonathan Rose
Drew University
Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.

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