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The Oxford Companion to the Book
The Oxford Companion to the Book

Oxford University Press, 2010
1408 pp., $355.00

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Alan Jacobs


The Idea of the Book

Harder to define than you supposed.

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To be sure, there are some major intellectual projects that work wonderfully as ongoing and at least partly communal endeavors, intentionally and intrinsically works-in-progress; and in many circumstances blogs and book projects can be delightfully symbiotic. (I have recently completed a book on reading, and I think the book is much better because I tried out many of its key ideas on my blog, Text Patterns.) But many major works of art and thought have benefitted from the long incubations that the practices of book-writing and the book business require. I have never written a novel, but I can testify that the arduous process of writing my way from the beginning of a sequence of ideas or events to the end, trying to keep the thread in mind at all times, indulging in digressions but striving to control them, achieving new insights or interpretations that require backtracking and rewriting, thinking all the time about how to make this path of thought attractive and meaningful to a reader, finally coming to the best arrangement and presentation of such a path as one can manage, and only then making the work public—this arduous process, I say, is immensely and wonderfully challenging. And it is nearly as challenging and in some ways just as rewarding for me to read the work of someone who has achieved these goals far better than I ever will.

Moreover, this model of what a book is has been intrinsic to the development of Western culture from Plato's Republic to the major monuments of recent scholarship and literature (despite the anticipatory denunciations of Socrates). It is not incidental to the power and influence of works as varied as Augustine's Confessions, Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, Gabriel García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and John Rawls' A Theory of Justice that they are all books and not some other kind of thing. These reflections manifestly are not the concern of The Oxford Companion to the Book, but they need to be somebody's concern.

3. These bleats made, acknowledged, and dismissed, it is time to go on to say that The Oxford Companion to the Book contains many excellent essays, and that there is something of interest on almost every page. Some of the essays compress vast tracts of book history into a few pages with élan and accuracy: I think especially of Craig Kallendorf's "The Ancient Book," Cristina Dondi's "The European Printing Revolution," and Daven Christopher Chamberlain's "Paper." There are some surprise entries: I had never really thought about "The Manuscript after the Coming of Print," but Harold Love shows that there is much to be said about "the process by which the handwritten word perpetuated its ancient traditions in the face of competition from the press." I particularly enjoyed Brian Cummings' essay "The Book as Symbol," though I wish it had been several times longer than it is. (Three pages!)

The Companion contains 32 historical essays, and while these are uniformly valuable, the many subdivisions obscure important historical continuities. For instance, the contiguous chapters that cover the history of the book in Eastern Europe—Hungary; the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Poland; the Baltic States; Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; and the Balkans—all have to account for what the rise of the Soviet Union did to book culture in these lands, and since there are many significant similarities, the narratives feel repetitious when read one after another. It is perhaps inappropriate to ask that a reference work with many authors would pull together a single historical narrative—the sort of thing that's typically the work of monographs—but more coherence would help the cause here. Because these are general essays, they provide the most bang-for-the-buck to readers who are largely or wholly ignorant of the subject under consideration: I knew next to nothing about "The History of the Book in the Muslim World" before I read Geoffrey Roper's account, and now I know how to pursue the subject further. It's a fascinating one.

The second essay in the Companion, after an overview of writing systems, is Carl Olson's "The Sacred Book." It's one of the longer essays, as it should be, and covers five traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Olson's expertise is in the latter two traditions, which probably explains why they cover more than half of the essay. I lack the expertise to judge the accuracy of those sections, but the ones on Judaism and Christianity are disappointing, devoted largely to summarizing the models of textual criticism that reigned half a century ago. (Olson includes Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative in his bibliography, but takes no notice of the damage Alter's work, and that of many other scholars, has done to the Documentary Hypothesis, which Olson breezily presents as unchallenged orthodoxy.)

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