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Out of Sorts

The Oxford Companion to the Book

ed. Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen
Oxford University Press, 2010

Sometime around the middle of the 12th century, we are told early in this new Oxford Companion, the number of available written works became too large for any single person to master in a lifetime. To deal with the problem, the monastic scribes who then produced almost all books in circulation in Europe came up with shortcuts for making their life’s work easier. They created new devices for organizing the knowledge their codices contained: tables of contents, paragraph breaks, marginal glosses and chapter numbers. And they produced new kinds of reference works whose only subject was other books: theological and legal encyclopedias, digests, concordances and indexes. In time, these books about books would grow so numerous as to fill up large rooms in large libraries, and so voluminous as to require indexes and other bibliographical aids of their own.

All that has now changed. Within the space of a generation, those weighty books about books, plus many of the original books themselves, have been digitized, transformed into databases, made readily accessible, searchable, downloadable and, in some of their print versions, expendable. None of these changes, however, has made it easier for us to master this material. On the contrary, the volume of information available online, which is almost as astonishing as the rate of its increase, is already far too great to digest in any reference work that could itself be read in a lifetime — or at least any reference work we can currently imagine or trust. In its glossary entry on Wikipedia, the Oxford Companion reports that as of October 2007 the site contained over 8.7 million articles in 250 languages. Since then, the online encyclopedia has added twenty-nine languages and its total number of articles has more than doubled. It’s already so vast that it, too, is being condensed for easy consumption through its Wikipanion app.

The scholarly field that calls itself “the history of the book” has developed over this same period not, as may be supposed, in response to the much anticipated death of the book. If it’s responding to anything, it’s to the demise of big books of bibliographical reference in print form. A work’s aura is never greater than at the moment of its demise, and certainly university presses like Oxford are hoping to capitalize on the fading glory of the reference room by commissioning colossal guides like this Companion (grandly subtitled “A History of the Book Throughout the Ages” and helpfully self-abbreviated as OCB) as well as lending their imprimatur to massive multi-volume histories of national book traditions and bulging scholarly tomes on topics like book piracy and working-class readers. Now that catalogs have become databases, reference shelves are being stocked with books about the very books they’ve replaced on those shelves.

The field of book history would not have come about, though, if it weren’t for the huge quantity of information these databases hold and the many shortcuts they and other electronic tools have lent to the monkish job of archival research. Book history may be the latest attempt to organize our knowledge about books at a point when the amount of this knowledge seems once again too much for us to master using the old tools. Nearly a millennium after it all became too much for anyone to take in, historians of the book are showing us what we once did to deal with the problem, perhaps in the hope of assuring us that we can yet find new ways of sifting information in the very act of creating more.

Book history, for all its vaunted interdisciplinary range, doesn’t claim to offer new tools. It relies on the oldest organizing device we have, narrative, to make sense of information we were once happy merely to list in those massive catalogs of printers and library collections. The field has produced some excellent cultural histories, like Robert Darnton’s studies of press shenanigans in 18th-century France, and it has enabled us to look beyond the catalog listings and understand some of the social and personal dimensions of reading and publishing. But the field has also not entirely outgrown its bibliographical roots and habits of mind: several of the essays and longer glossary entries in the OCB suspend the story-telling in favor of lengthy lists of names and densely packed technical detail. More importantly, it has not overcome the monkish impulse to compile, the sense that, if it’s no longer possible to know everything about something, then the next best thing to do is to gather all knowledge about it in one place and then let readers browse the bloat.

The OCB is a monumental gathering: contributions from 398 scholars from 27 countries, 48 hefty essays on the history of book production throughout the world, and 5160 A-Z entries, a few of which are as lengthy as some of the opening essays. Several of the essays are very good — Michael Harris on printed ephemera, Marcus Walsh on textual criticism, Neil Harris on the history of the book in Italy, among others — and many of the glossary entries are marvels of compression. Not surprisingly for a work that deals so extensively with the “material book,” the two volumes of the OCB are handsomely produced and come complete with slip cover, matt-coated paper and silk ribbons (“common particularly in 18th-19th-century devotional books,” we are told). It includes a helpful thematic index of entries and a further 42-page, 4-column index of names and titles that covers both the essays and the glossary. (A fully searchable, online version of the OCB is available through libraries, though mine hasn’t got it yet.) Oxford may have skimped a little on the illustrations, and there are no color plates. But they know how to make their reference books look authoritative.

Authoritative they may be, but most Oxford Companions, like the venerable Companion to English Literature, are works of popular reference. They are large handbooks, designed to provide concise answers to many questions in a given field, rather than encyclopedias that provide explanations of as many topics as possible that fall within a field. The OCB does not pretend to be exhaustive but its ambitions are encyclopedic. True, its field is wide, and pretty vague at its edges. The history of the book takes in all literate cultures, all periods and a great many activities and experiences besides the physical work of publication. The latter topic alone encompasses enough terms of art to fill up a hefty dictionary on their own and, yes, the OCB‘s glossary offers plenty of idiomatic delights for the bookishly OCDed: yapp edge, flong, cottage roof, visorum, pochoir, rutter book, fat face, wayzgoose, eighteenmo, divinity calf, quoin, cumdach, colporteur, &c. (under “ampersand”). These terms occupy only a fraction of the glossary’s entries, which also cover publishers, booksellers, printers, binders, editors, illustrators, engravers, scholars, collectors, libraries, prizes, types of books, publishing histories of notable books, &c., &c.

The history of books may be long and varied but that’s no reason to make the OCB so big. It’s bad enough that information overload quickly dulls any browserly pleasures. Worse, the OCB does not make it easy to digest this information or judge the relative importance of its many topics. In all the OCB contains over a million words, and the editors say they could have used another million. I wish they had used fewer. If they hadn’t been indulged by their publisher, who apparently came up with the idea for the OCB, they might have produced a volume like Blackwell’s 2007 Companion to the History of the Book, which is more scholarly but much shorter, crisper in its story-telling, less repetitive, more theoretically astute, less unwieldy and a whole lot cheaper.

If Oxford believed that making the OCB shorter would have limited its appeal to research libraries and dedicated bibliophiles, then the project should have been conceived as a full-scale work of reference. Maybe the online version will eventually be turned into a longer and more definitive resource. As it is, the OCB is overweight without being comprehensive. It doesn’t take long to notice gaps in its coverage. It contains definitions for hundreds of technical words but offers no discussion of commonly if loosely used categories like “bestseller” or “rare book.” There’s not much on non-textual elements of books like charts and graphs, or non-textual uses of books like the act of taking oaths on books. There’s an entry on social clubs but no mention of the Club Book used by club members to record bets, from which we get “bookmaker” and “bookie.” There are entries on Aldus’s Virgil and Pope’s Homer but not Classics Illustrated or, for that matter, Virgil and Homer. We get poster but not postcard, pilcrow and paraph (both of them early names for the paragraph mark) but no section or pound sign, a fist and a dagger but no bullet, © but no @.

Whether these omissions are deliberate is not possible to know since the editors don’t tell us what guided them in their selection of entries, their choice of essay topics or, most importantly, their apportioning of space to individual subjects and themes. Neither authorship nor reading gets an essay of its own, but are accorded glossary entries of two and three columns, respectively. This might seem plenty for a quick overview but then up to five columns are devoted to topics like private presses and scholarly publishing. Paper gets an essay, ink three sentences. Some of the surveys of older national book histories start before the advent of printing, others after. As you might expect, there is considerable attention paid to the book in Britain, the business side of publishing and various genres of books, but you have to wade through several of the longer essays to get more than scattered remarks on big conceptual issues like the intellectual impact of print. Some topics are bundled with other subjects, though you may not find them unless you already know something about the subject: if you want to learn about a particular typeface, for example, you need to know the name of its designer to locate it. Entries for other, more complicated topics like “the history of the book” offer little more than an index of cross-referenced sub-topics.

Given its subject and book historians’ fastidiousness, it may be too much to expect a work like the OCB to organize its mess of miscellaneous, sometimes intriguing, sometimes unnecessary detail into something more than a catalog or a set of list-laden essays. Thankfully, there are acute observations here and there, some donnish jokes, and a few entries that look beyond the reference shelves. Here’s one, in full:

out of sorts *Sorts being individual pieces of type, to be out of sorts is to find that the available type is insufficient for a job, typically because certain letters are lacking. This circumstance, possibly occurring frequently in the hand-press period, left the compositor and other workmen irritated.

Though the OCB includes a brief essay on books as religious and political symbols, it has no entry on the book as metaphor. Nor does the above entry, which could have been plucked from a dictionary of phrases, make the obvious point that its only interest for us is the explanation it offers for a common book metaphor. There is in fact some disagreement among etymologists over the origin of “out of sorts,” a phrase which may predate the invention of movable type. All the same, the entry hints at a richer book culture that may be difficult to capture in a work of reference but remains our main source for the kind of stories, possibly occurring frequently, that have helped to transform bibliography into book history.

Trevor Ross is completing a study entitled Writing in Public: Literature and the Liberty of the Press in Eighteenth-Century Britain.

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