Book History

In the Introduction to A Handbook for the Study of Book History, Ronald and Mary Zboray explain what they think the field of Book History is about:

The several disciplines that touch book history all share an understanding: printed artifacts do not give direct insight into the past; rather, that insight is mediated. that is to say, meaning does not leap directly from writers’ to readers’ minds through printed pages, but rather is produced through interventions, or mediations. For example, a writer writes for a “market”; editors and publishers reconfigure the writer’s work into book form and decide upon its packaging and distribution; booksellers display the book where potential buyers may be likely to see it; finally, different readers understand the book in a variety of different ways. By the time the book is read, it has traveled through many such mediations. Some scholars see these mediations as distortions—just as messages become mangled when whispered from person to person in a line—but book historians take these mediations as their principle object of study. Why? Because the mediations of producers, disseminators, and consumers of printed materials provide insight into how a society produces meaning. (p. 4)

So what about this? On one hand, it makes me fairly sure I don’t want to be primarily a book historian (I’d miss the people). On the other, the idea that the book is an artifact, and that it travels this path and meaning is added, subtracted, or changed along the way, makes a lot of sense.

The mediations the Zborays list seem very modern – I can almost see them thinking about their own process of writing, negotiating with their agent, working with content and then line editors, taking advice from packaging and marketing reps at the publishing house, going on author tours, etc. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet like
Common Sense for a “market” too, but not in the same way; not with all the modern bells and whistles. And what about a guy like Charles Knowlton, who self-published his books (that is, paid the printer directly), and carried them from place to place in his saddle-bags? The lack of mediation in these cases (or the authors’ and readers’ lack of awareness of mediation) might be as important as the presence of mediation in more contemporary cases.

The point that books are commodities is well taken (Gilmore makes it strongly in
Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life, too). They didn’t get from place to place by magic – somebody had to carry them, and had to have a reason to carry them. But do the steps between the author’s act and the reader’s act really alter the book’s meaning that much? The closer the author and the reader are in time and space, the less likely that seems. But on the other hand, what about Erasmus Darwin? How did his works get to places like Ashburnham and Ashfield and Brimfield, with enough energy behind them that people went ahead and named their children after the author? At the very least, the way decisions are made regarding what gets printed/distributed, and what doesn’t, seems to be very relevant to my project…

Knowlton & Kneeland

Abner Kneeland was a lecturer for Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright’s secular organization, and later was the editor of the Boston Investigator, a freethought newspaper. Kneeland was tried and ultimately convicted of blasphemy, primarily for promoting Charles Knowlton’s birth control book The Fruits of Philosophy. I’ve often wondered how Kneeland and Knowlton met, and how close they were.

Like Knowlton, Abner Kneeland was a member of a respected central Massachusetts family. Abner was a grandson of Timothy Kneeland, the
third resident of Gardner. The Kneeland family remained prominent in Gardner, where Charles’ brothers Emery and Augustus settled and became chair manufacturers. Gardner is five miles from Templeton, where Charles grew up. Kneeland was 26 years older than Knowlton, and was employed as a schoolteacher about the time Knowlton was born. Two years later, he published his first book (the American Definition Spelling Book), and by the time Charles was five, Abner was in Langdon, NH, being ordained as a Baptist minister.

It might be interesting to trace the lives of these two men, since they came from similar backgrounds and ultimately found each other in the freethought movement, where they were both imprisoned for unpopular beliefs (where was Kneeland incarcerated? Cambridge, like Knowlton?). Since a very small minority of people with their backgrounds developed these views (as far as we currently know), and since Kneeland wrote about the beginnings of the labor movement (and Knowlton’s brothers were small-scale capitalists, probably employing a couple of dozen workers in their chair factory), this connection might lead in interesting directions.

UMass then and now

I’m sure there’ll be other differences, but here’s one for a start: