Sunday, February 3, 2013

Darnton - "What Is the History of Books?"

Robert Darnton, arguing that the history of books can "look less like a field than a tropical rain forest" in which an "explorer can hardly make his way across" (p. 66), offers a "general model for analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society" that would allow "some distance from interdisciplinarity run riot" (p. 67). The model assumes that "printed books generally pass through roughly the same life cycle" (p. 67), and studying the entire process, rather than chopping it into individual parts (e.g. printing) is necessary to understand the full picture. He says that he is "not arguing that book history should be written according to a standard formula," but rather his goal is to show "how its disparate segments can be brought together within a single conceptual scheme" (p. 75). Darden says his model makes such a wide assessment of the process possible. He envisions book production as a circuit, with authors, publishers, printers, shippers, booksellers and readers aligned along the circle, influenced by industry entities (like binders and suppliers), as well as by publicity and economic, social, legal and political forces.

To illustrate his model, Darnton spends the middle section of the article looking at the publishing history of Voltaire's Questions sur l'Encyclopedie, specifically concentrating on what he calls "the least familiar link in the diffusion process" (p. 69), the role of a bookseller, Rigoud, rather than the more traditional approach of choosing the composition (a biographical examination of Voltaire's efforts to circulate his ideas on religious intolerance) or printing (a bibliographical look at the impressive reach of Voltaire's works) stage. For example, Rigoud specialized in medical and forbidden books, and he often ordered in small quantities, making his order of 39 sets of Voltaire's work atypical. And by tracing the rough-and-tumble business practices of the bookseller, Darnton says it becomes clear that volumes of Questions were "being sold all over Montpellier, even though in principle they could not circulate legally in France," and that since "dealers like Rigoud scratched and clawed for their shipments of it, Voltaire could be sure that he was succeeding in his attempt to propel his ideas through the main lines of France's communications system" (p. 72).

Darden then goes through each member of the publishing circuit (author, publisher, printer, etc.), demonstrating how a study of that entity can illuminate--and has illuminated--the history of books.

As Darnton showed in his book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, he likes to plunge into the details of a seemingly nondescript player in history to arrive at larger truths, and this article demonstrates the same approach, with the same strengths and weaknesses. Often that approach works, as his look at Rigoud does help show how, as he argues at the beginning of the article, the different elements of the publishing cycle are intertwined and connected in ways that make the study of any one piece lacking in important context. But he does sometimes get lost in the (admittedly interesting) minutiae of Rigoud's business practices, often losing site of his original premise and model. And he often skirts over difficult problems, for example noting in passing the difficulty of ascertaining how readers of a long-ago time received a book, but offering only a few examples of speculative research and downplaying the real difficulty in historically constructing the inner details of audience reaction.

In the end, Darnton's article offers an important larger point about the way the book publishing process works, and his proposed model provides a guideline for scholars studying book history to better account for the interconnectedness of the players involved in producing a book.

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