The Book: A Global History

Edited by Michael F. Suarez, S. J. and H. R. Woudhuysen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 672 pp. $50.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-19-967941-6.

The Book: A Global History is the ideal subject for a review in Information & Culture: A Journal of History, as it focuses on the geographic and cultural contexts within which written information has been transmitted over time. The Book is divided into two sections: the first is a series of thematic studies relating to the history of the written word, and the second is divided into regional and national histories. The content is not restricted to the history of the codex, as suggested in the title; rather, the discussion encompasses a number of formats for the transmission of written information.

The Book is an effort on the part of the editors to make some of its previously-published content more affordable to a wider audience. Suarez and Woudhuysen’s preceding collaboration was the two-volume Oxford Companion to the Book, which was praised by the bibliographic community but somewhat cost-prohibitive to a general audience. In an attempt to make the text more accessible, they distilled the contents of that work into a newer, condensed volume, supplemented by three new essays (“Censorship”; “Intellectual Property and Copyright”; and “The History of the Book in the Caribbean and Bermuda”) and one that has been substantially revised to reflect rapid technological change (“The Electronic Book”). Primarily what has been removed is the encyclopedic listing of book-related terminology that comprised the second volume of the Oxford Companion to the Book. The result is a concise but comprehensive overview of the history of recorded texts, through time and across the globe.

The authors have made a concerted effort to consolidate the material as efficiently as possible, and they provide a useful list of “bibliographical” and “other” abbreviations. “Bibliographical”, in this case, refers to titles of bibliographic source material, while “other” refers to terms for time periods, locations, bibliographic terminology, units of measure, etc. A particularly convenient feature, retained from the Oxford Companion to the Book, is the inclusion of a numbered list of contents at the beginning of each essay, allowing the reader to quickly identify sub-topics.

One formatting decision worth noting is likely the product of the desire to conserve space in the volume. At the end of each essay is a bibliography—a helpful starting point for further study of the topic—but each entry is abbreviated to include only an author, title, and date. Other elements of note include a ribbon bookmark, a feature rarely offered in modern mass-market hardbacks, which is rather handy; the book is large enough that crafting a makeshift bookmark from the flaps of the dust jacket quickly becomes impractical.

All of the illustrations are black and white, as were those in the Oxford Companion to the Book. It is not surprising that the more budget-conscious volume of The Book retained the more cost-effective approach to illustration, although full color would have added an extra dimension and level of detail to the images. However, this book is intended to be a broad treatment of the subject, and upon completing this introduction to a given subtopic, the reader may look elsewhere to examine related images in greater detail.

Before exploring its contents, one might assume that The Book is likely to neglect electronic formats of information in favor of those that are more traditional, but this is not the case. The final essay in the “Thematic Studies” section focuses on the rise of e-books and related technologies, and the ways they have affected how we define “the book.” When combined with the other facets of written information discussed in this volume, the reader will have a very good sense of the techniques and media used for the transmission of texts over the last six millennia.

Jennifer K. Sheehan, Ph.D., The Grolier Club