Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts

By David Pearson. London: The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 2012. $29.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-7123-5888-0.

The author describes how books are interesting and important to understand as physical artifacts, apart from whatever content their authors wrote. He demonstrates how books were made, owned, written, mutilated, and bound in a beautifully illustrated volume relying on color photographs drawn from British libraries. David Pearson argues that such artifacts have much to tell us about what their owners, for example, did with them and how they learned from them, such as through the study of marginalia. Their bindings suggested the variety of their forms, the audiences for which they were intended, and the role they were to play. He justifies this exercise with the argument that books are in flux as e-books make their entrance. While he acknowledges that we will read more electronically, this does not mean physical books lose their value, particularly older ones that have survived wars, owners, libraries, and changing values.

Through eight tightly written chapters, each with illustrations, he argues his case. A central theme is the variety and variability of books, even those that were mass produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as a copy of a book owned by a famous person who wrote notes in the margins versus the same book without any marginalia. The key chapters focus on the individuality of books within mass production, the variety resulting from who owned a volume, the variety caused by differing bindings, and the collective value of libraries in this process of supporting various copies—not just one—of a book. Using small case studies, he demonstrates how books vary from one copy to another. In the process he successfully challenges “the notion that books are interesting only as gateways to texts,” arguing instead that they have much to “offer as cultural and historic artifacts,” (21). In short, books were not passive conduits. In “their three-dimensional formats, physical characteristics . . . affected the ways in which their contents have been received, and then exploited for their artefactual potential,” (22).

One of the most fascinating parts of his book is the discussion about other formats writers and publishers continue to experiment with. These include, for example, experimenting with the layout of types (a longstanding tradition) all the way to three-dimensional octagonal structures in which the text becomes obvious when moved from a codex format into a 3-dimensional structure. Other examples will remind readers of the pop-up books they read as children, string books to engage the senses, books displaying text through mirrors, others made from cork and not in the shape of traditional books. This discussion pointed out that the concept of books continues to evolve.

Toward the end he argues the case for keeping duplicate copies of a book in a library, largely because they are not necessarily duplicates when the physical object is compared one copy to another; he does this through descriptions and photographs side-by-side of supposedly the same book, with dramatic effects. He is blunt with his fellow-librarians about their value: “As books become history, let us recognize that this is not just history as a synonym for quaint but obsolescent, but may be history in the sense of unique artifacts within the fabric of cultural heritage,” (183). Pearson does not criticize e-books, rather he takes the position that this is not an “either-or” situation where one should completely displace the other. Both formats have a role to play.

The vast majority of his examples and illustrations are British. But he could just as easily have cited American, French, Italian, German, Nordic, or Spanish books and they would have supported his point of view. Following his example, it should be pointed out that he first published this book in 2008, republished it in 2011, and then revised it for this third edition. Already this reviewer’s copy is unique as I wrote comments on the margins and underlined points that were pertinent to me and to my own current research, demonstrating in practice his point about the value of the artifact. Pearson’s publication is a welcome addition to the history of books, one that is well written, beautifully illustrated, and offers up an elegant defense of the book as artifact.

James W. Cortada

Charles Babbage Institute, 

University of Minnesota