Real Texts, Real Readers: Quantitative Methods in Book History
History of the Book is an interdisciplinary field that includes in its ambit a wide range of historical interests and approaches to texts, and counts among its practitioners scholars in history, literature, sociology, and other fields. According to the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, history of the book investigates “the creation, dissemination, and reception of script and print, including newspapers, periodicals, and ephemera. Book historians study the social, cultural, and economic history of authorship; the history of the book trade, copyright, censorship, and underground publishing; the publishing histories of particular literary works, authors, editors, imprints, and literary agents; the spread of literacy and book distribution; canon formation and the politics of literary criticism; libraries, reading habits, and reader response” (www.sharpweb.org). Pursuit of this wide range of interests naturally dictates that book historians practice an equally wide range of methodologies, including quantitative methods.
Book history traces its origins back to the great bibliographical enterprises of the early 20th century, including, for example, Early American Imprints, which catalogs all American books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed between 1639 and 1800. However, history of the book as a field of study often points to Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s 1958 work, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800, as its watershed moment. Febvre and Martin’s book drew on printers’, papermakers’, and booksellers’ business records, as well as methods of bibliographical description, to develop an empirical account of the spread of printing through Europe as well as an assessment of the impact of printing on language, humanism, and religion. The work of Febvre and Martin’s successors have followed their model of combining analysis of quantitative data with more traditional methods of research in the humanities to create an evolving portrait of print culture, high and low. Two recent examples of such work are Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Christina Pawley’s Reading on the Middle Border: The Culture of Print in Late-Nineteenth-Century Osage, Iowa, 1860–1900.
Numerous online resources are available to those who wish to combine quantitative methods with traditional historical or literary analysis of texts in the study of Anglo-American book culture. For those interested in readers’ responses to texts of all sorts, the Reading Experience Database documents 17,000 “reading experiences” of British subjects between the 1450 and 1945. Those interested in library history can find materials in the Library History Database, which includes materials on 27,000 libraries of all sorts in the British Isles. The Scottish Book Trade Index, the records of the Stationers’ Company, the Atlas of Early Printing—all of these resources and many more, which lend themselves to quantitative analysis—are available online.
Designed for particularly for students in history and literary studies (in any language) but also suitable for those in philosophy, religious studies, political science, or almost any discipline in the humanities that involves the study of printed texts, this course will introduce students to quantitative methods of book history that can enlarge their repertoire of skills and enrich their understanding of how the material culture of print impacts the study of texts and their readers.
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