"The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book"

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James Raven, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Hardcover, xxxvi, 431 p. $39.95 (ISBN 9780198702986).

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book edited by James Raven is a compilation of 14 essays of stimulating narrative by academics worldwide. James Raven is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Project for the Book Trust, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Essex, and has written and edited other major works on this subject. He has drawn eminent scholars from various disciplines in a single volume of less than 500 pages that is global in scope and covers beyond the Western civilization. The essays provide a multicultural view of what makes a ‘book’ and explore its effect in history organized by period and region, allowing the reader to truly appreciate the breadth of book history. Although scholarly in nature, both well-informed and novice readers would find this collection of essays stimulating.

The chapters are thoughtfully presented and organized to allow readers to either read continuously from the ancient world to the modern digital era or selectively as a reference resource. Remaining true to its title, this volume boasts 168 illustrations, mostly color. From a visual perspective, the chapters are not too heavily illustrated, with each containing anywhere from 7 to 15 plates and figures varying in size. Readers will not find these distracting; in fact, it is a welcome gathering of each author’s discoveries. In addition to perusing the ever-entrancing, and undeniably special, images of illuminated manuscripts one may be accustomed to finding in seminal works on this topic, readers will find non-Western European focal points such as the oldest surviving Chinese oracle bones (30), Inca knotted-string record (49), Japanese wooden movable type text (106), or the palm-leaf manuscript from Southeast Asia (260) equally captivating and enlightening.

In addition to the copious photographic images, other notable features to appreciate about this book are an at-a-glance 14-page Timeline (starting from 3500 BCE) preceding Chapter 1, and an 8-page Abbreviations and Glossary following the last chapter. While not exhaustive, incorporating events and terms from non-Western European nations will make this a great resource for anyone interested in tracing the evolution of book history that is global in scope. References provided in Further Reading are well organized, divided regionally and some thematically for each chapter. Readers will also appreciate finding Notes on Contributors ahead of the Introduction chapter, albeit very brief. Each contributor was undoubtedly selected to exemplify the range of expertise included in this collection, allowing readers to anticipate different and yet interrelated perspectives in the upcoming chapters.

The contents are well organized chronologically and regionally, which will be exceptionally helpful to readers without any expertise on the subject. The organization begins with the Ancient World, where the function of books and their value in different parts of the world are discussed, and ends with evocative thoughts on the future of books in Books Transformed in the last chapter. However, Raven’s Introduction leads the way and establishes the tone on the complexities involved in defining what a book is and the nonlinear path of its evolution in history, which is an overarching theme in the collection. Another strength of this collection in its organization is that the chapters refer to one another, providing a seamless narrative despite each chapter being written by different authors.

Each chapter can stand on its own, but collectively works well in providing a global view from the early empires to the development of modern books, including the impact of movable type, the growth of the book trade and book production technology, and globalization. The chapters on the Islamic World, South Asia, Modern China, Japan, and Korea are interspersed in the collection, which keeps the temporal and regional progression more interesting and comprehensive. A chapter on Managing Information is quite stimulating as various informational genres are explored. Librarians will particularly appreciate perusing this chapter. 

As the readers move around the world with ease in this single volume, the interweaving of the meaning of a book, its function, and history in cultural and societal context remind readers that it is not simply about a history on the codex or the printed book, but the intellectual and social histories that must be examined to understand the activities in book history. Just as the rise in piracy and censorship cannot be viewed without giving due consideration to the revolution in the book trade and globalization, transitions in book format from early to modern cannot be viewed without giving due consideration to tensions in religion, politics, and culture which gave rise to books in all their magnificent disparate forms.

The relationship between meaning and function of a book may have been obvious in the simplest form in the past. However, readers will find that the modern interdisciplinary scholarship provides no shortage of questions to ponder. What does a book convey, not only as a physical object but as social structure of the time? What does a book convey as an object of economic exchange? What does research in book history inform? As the scholars in this collection offer extended perspectives to reform the older models, Raven gives distinction to Robert Darnton in his Introduction as “the first to acknowledge, models are nothing but the servant of new thinking, even though they are servants who organize thought, directly assist in archival and evidential interpretation, and encourage bolder and more provocative conceptualizations” (19).  In fact, a few references are made to Robert Darnton’s ‘What is the History of Books?’[1], so it would benefit readers interested in this topic to obtain a copy of this classic article.

By the time the final chapter on the future of books is explored, readers will be gratified to release the Western precepts and be able to perceive how ‘book’ was understood in different parts of the world. Overall, this well-curated collection of essays challenges our assumptions of what a book is, and adeptly convinces the reader to discard any definitions delineated from the past to appreciate the breadth of ‘the history of the book’ as more perspectives are continuously incorporated to advance the field. Books will always give “birth to new kinds of books” (369) with technological innovations. The book’s ontology will continue to shift, and there is no overcast of ambiguity that the meaning and function of the ‘book’ will continue to evolve as the field crosses disciplinary boundaries and intersects with diversity of scholars. For a volume that is light in weight, it is heavy enough in content to earn a place in the library or on a personal bookshelf of anyone interested in the multidisciplinary nature of book history. —Linda Isaac, Houghton Library, Harvard University

[1] Robert Darnton, “What Is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111(3): 65-83, 1982.