An American Editor

February 26, 2010

On Books: The Nature of the Book

I recently purchased The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns as an addition to my to-read pile. But I found I was anxious to get started reading it, so I set aside what else I was reading and tackled this tome.

The Nature of the Book is not a new book; it was published in 1998 by the University of Chicago Press. And it isn’t short, coming in at 775 pages; it lists for $40. It also isn’t lively reading. Unlike a previously reviewed book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, the writing style is relatively dry. But this book is packed with information about books in the pre-19th century era.

Johns notes what makes a book unique and important, what makes it different from the scrolls and handwritten “books” that preceded the invention of moveable type. And he writes about printing-house, the precursors to today’s publishers, and their importance.

When we buy a book today (of course, Johns was talking about the print book, not the electronic book) we do so with certain expectations in mind: We expect that the copy we buy will be identical to the copy bought elsewhere, in another time and place. We expect that the author has some credibility and that the author’s words haven’t been changed by a scribe who was capturing the essence of the speech rather than the exact speech.

We also expect that the book was not written with just us in mind; that it was written to withstand the scrutiny of thousands, if not millions, of pairs of eyes. We expect that the author really does exist, that the listed publisher really did publish the book, and that, as noted earlier, its contents are universally the same.

By highlighting these expectations for the printed book, Johns inadvertently (and only by implication) notes the problems that exist with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks. With ebooks, we have expectations but no assurances that the author exists, the publisher exists, the content is universally the same and is trustworthy — unless the publisher is a recognized, known publisher, in which event we have some level of assurance. With the ebook, especially the self-published ebook, we have no assurance of impartial vetting. Most importantly, we have no assurance that the named author was really the book’s author — anyone can put their name to an electronic file; just look at your daily spam for proof of that!

Johns argues successfully that it is the book in its modern manifestation (modern being post-Gutenberg) that has rendered possible the exponential growth of knowledge. Because a printed book’s content is universally the same, everyone who reads it has the potential to gain and apply the same knowledge. When books were handcrafted, knowledge was confined. (Of course, since some of the greatest literature of all time were products of premodern processes, it is impossible to know what interpretations and omissions were made that might shed different light on their content.)

The Nature of the Book is well-worth reading to understand the profound impact books have and have had on our society. Johns discusses the role of the printed argument in the advancement of knowledge and how the advent of the book gave credence to scientific theory that was contrary to what was popularly believed. By expanding the audience and giving each audience member an opportunity to build on the content of the book, books transformed science and knowledge. Where only the elite and wealthy previously had access to science and literature, books gave access to (and encouraged literacy of) broader audiences.

Johns explores, among other themes, what it meant to write and make a book in the days of the printing-house in the early modern era. The Nature of the Book focuses on pre-19th century book making and publishing, and is a fascinating look at the birth of book publishing.

Education on a mass scale, which is the foundation of modern society, became possible with the modern print book. A country like the United States was able to forge a single identity, instead of 50+ identities, because books and modern publishing gave readers from all parts of the country access to identical information. The Nature of the Book introduces us to the revolution that brought us to today’s world.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Are books still books if they’re electronic? If you’d like to think more deeply on the nature of the book, this might be the read for you. […]


    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Ya wanna know the funny part? I didn’t think I’d have enough links to do linkity…. — March 4, 2010 @ 8:02 am | Reply

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