What Is a Book?: A Study of Early Printed Books

By Joseph A. Dane. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. 276 pp. $30.00 (paper) ISBN 978-0-268-02609-7.

Joseph Dane’s latest book is more about what careful study of individual book-copies can tell us than it is a study or explanation of 15th-century books as the title suggests. In prose invigorated by sharp personal comments and opinion, with examples mostly drawn from his own field of Renaissance British bibliography, Dane takes us through chapters often aimed at graduate bibliography students: basic and advanced terminology, book sizes, types of materials used, mechanics of early printing, page format and typology, techniques of illustrations, bindings, provenance, existence of variations, ideal copy and descriptive bibliography, facsimiles and forgeries, and, finally databases of early printed books.

Throughout, the emphasis is on bibliography, viewing and analyzing the book through description of individual book-copies and variants. Indeed, a more correct subtitle would be The Bibliographic Study of the Early English Book. His work serves as an illustrative introduction to both bibliography in general and to the study of early printing in England without being exactly a textbook or manual for either. At the same time, it is a very personal book with Dane’s caustic comments freely scattered and his personality firmly stamped on practically every page. One soon – and repeatedly – discovers his animus for Febrve and Martin’s The Coming of the Book but, details aside, does not successfully challenge its place as a general work that brought book history and printing firmly into mainstream historiography. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1460-1800, trans. David Gerard (Paris, 1958; London: Verso, 1976).

Both enumerate and descriptive bibliography are important in the history of information because books themselves were so long the principal conveyers of written knowledge from one area to the next and one generation to subsequent ones. But as Dane cautions (193), “printers’ intentions are neither consistent nor necessarily coherent” so generalizations about the history of books can be misleading. Self-consciously vigilant bibliography adds complexity, spice and nuance to book history.

His all-too-short chapter on forgeries adds the spice while his study of electronic databases like the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) confirms something many of us probably suspected but never tried to document. Here as elsewhere Dane shows the careful eye and precision of a bibliographer and presents a number of disturbing conclusions. Speaking in this case of ECCO, Dane flatly concludes, “each time I conduct the searches I describe here, I get different results” (224). One strongly suspects that student use, typically hurried and based on the Google-simplex – once is enough, what you see is all there is – frequently misleads them in almost all bibliographic database searches. Dane shows that such errors appear to be embedded in many databases.

In an earlier book Dane wrote, at rather confusing length, about “the insecurities of book history.” Joseph A. Dane, The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality and Bibliographical Method (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 188. In this one he focuses more on the insecurities of bibliography, a much more narrow scope than his title promises, but most book people will find elements of interest in it.

Patrick M. Valentine, East Carolina University