"The Rise of the Arabic Book"

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Beatrice Gruendler. The Rise of the Arabic Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020. Hardcover, 262p. $39.95. ISBN:978-0-674-98781-4. Reviewed by Jessa Feiler.

The Rise of the Arabic Book presents a concise history of the growth of written culture in the Arabic-speaking world during the ninth century. The author, Prof. Dr. Beatrice Gruendler, is a German Arabist who studied Arabic language and literature, Semitic Studies, and Assyriology at University of Strasbourg, University of Tübingen, and Harvard University. She completed her PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. Following several teaching engagements in the Ivy League, Gruendler became a full professor at Yale and taught there for over a decade before returning to Germany to teach and conduct scholarship at the Free University of Berlin. Gruendler continues to collaborate on projects internationally and was named President of the American Oriental Society in 2016.

Gruendler approaches The Rise of the Arabic Book from a deeply knowledgeable perspective with the goal of recentering Arabic book culture. Too many books examine Arabic culture in terms of the West and discuss the history of the book relative to the printing press; Gruendler strives to offer an alternate view of the Arabic world as an independently evolving book culture in the pre-print era. Gruendler portrays the Arabic world as a vibrant, thriving cultural center--made even more striking when compared to the war-torn, feudal Western world of the early middle ages. According to Gruendler, by the thirteenth century the Sorbonne held fewer than 2,000 volumes in its library, while five libraries in Baghdad held millions. This impressive production and accumulation began during the emergence of the Arabic codex in the ninth century, before Europe was a printing powerhouse.

Gruendler contextualizes these achievements by highlighting the striking diversity of the Arabic world and the contributions made by people from different ethnic backgrounds and social classes. Though ruled by Islamic caliphates and using classical Arabic (‘arabiyya) as a formal language, the Arabic world of the ninth century was a diverse one in which Greeks, Persians, Spaniards, and even those with partial Jewish or Christian heritage were welcomed at the royal courts, provided they operated within an Arabic-speaking Islamic framework. While the melding of cultures was complicated--Gruendler rightly offers examples of antisemitic, anti-Persian, and anti-Indian sentiment--the culture was sufficiently open that a book about Arabic world poets by Muhammad b. Sallām contained a section on Jewish poets and the republication of Christian literary work was not uncommon.

Gruendler divides The Rise of the Arabic Book into four chapters titled “Scholars,” “Poets,” “Stationers,” and “Book Owners and Readers.” It is an innovative organizational style that allows Gruendler to follow the Arabic book as it progressed from a crutch supporting the oral tradition to an independent media form.

Obviously, books had always existed and are believed to date back to well before Gilgamesh. However, the Arabic world had a flourishing oral tradition in which transmitters, known as rāwī (s.) or ruwāt (pl.), memorized poetry, historical narratives (akhbār), and sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (hadīth). Gruendler brings this unfamiliar job to life, showing both the risk and prestige of having such an occupation. This was particularly difficult work because, beyond having an exceptional memory, classical Arabic was also a learned language, not a native language. Intense ambiguities in the written language, especially with unwritten vowels and endings, meant that being a talented Arabic speaker required intense study of grammar. An entire field of grammar scholarship emerged in support. Even intonation was a challenge, since only the Bedouins were believed to have an innate understanding of it. Additionally, transmitters had to be scholars able to recite on command, sorting their memorized texts by subject, moral lesson, or otherwise in order to please their listeners, who were often royalty and high-level royal officials with demanding or mercurial temperaments. Transmitters were paid, sometimes lavishly, for their successful efforts.

Although Arab scholars and transmitters for some time had been dabbling with writing to create memory aids, to enhance their reputation in far-flung areas, and even to provide legal evidence, royal administrators were among the first to own complete, edited books. Summoning a transmitter was inconvenient and expensive. Books allowed administrators to have Islamic doctrine at their fingertips and to consult narratives about the actions of historical rulers. In the early years of the ninth century, methods of acquiring books ranged from commissioning them to imprisoning scholars in order to secure their knowledge in writing.

Over time, the sheer power and transmissibility of the written word overcame any hesitation about books, though Gruendler carefully illustrates how the written and oral tradition continued to operate side by side. People began to trust written language and no longer believed that oral interpretation was essential to understanding it. Additionally, specific genres emerged including the compilation. Highly popular, one seemed to have existed on virtually every conceivable subject. The Arabic world did not just write books; they rewrote, amended, and compiled them to promote particular views of the world. Stationers, or book publishers, assisted in all of these areas. While individual scribing of books today seems labor-intensive and expensive, the sheer number of people engaged in the trade (and the efficiencies they discovered such as abridgement and specializing in a single book) created a booming market. Readers and collectors demanded ever more books. In fact, the Arabic codex was fully established by the end of the ninth century. Gruendler insightfully compares this growth to that of the internet.

In the Acknowledgements, Gruendler states that her aim is to “make the book accessible not only to scholars of Near Eastern studies but to any interested reader.” Gruendler achieves this goal--with qualifications. I believe The Rise of the Arabic Book is most useful as a reference text. For both beginning and experienced scholars focused on the Arabic world in the ninth century, this book will likely become a shelf staple. (Indeed, its unusual bright yellow dust jacket patterned with the Arab motifs will set it apart as much as its accessibility and manageable length.) I expect The Rise of the Arabic Book to be regularly quoted in scholarly papers dealing with the Abbasid era.

Although The Rise of the Arabic Book’s bibliography suggests that scholarship in this area is vast, Gruendler’s history is distinguished by her ability to tell it through a fascinating story. Her prose is enlivened with dozens of relevant anecdotes featuring historical people with relatable personalities and motivations. For example, her “Incident of the Horse” effortlessly shows the clash between memory and book writing through a competition between two rival scholars. While the Arabic world of the ninth century is very far away, both geographically and chronologically, Gruendler is adept at making it feel much closer.

For me, a librarian whose experience with Arabic is largely limited to Ottoman-era Qu’rāns, Gruendler’s book was as challenging as it was informative. The information-dense Introduction and plethora of unfamiliar names present a steep learning curve for anyone new to Near Eastern history. Initially, I was intimidated. While the work is heavily indexed, both a glossary of names and a timeline would be welcome at the beginning of any subsequent editions. A timeline, in particular, would be helpful as Gruendler catapults back and forth in time during the Introduction, and it can be difficult for the non-scholar to get situated toward the beginning of the book. My recommendation is that future readers encountering the Arabic world for the first time skim the Introduction and re-read it at the end, once they have become more familiar with the Arabic terminology, the major players, and the history of the book as limited to its early years. Then, Gruendler’s wider history may prove easier to assimilate; I certainly found that it was for me upon rereading it.

Nevertheless, The Rise of the Arabic Book has considerable teaching value, even for special collections libraries and museums without extensive Arabic-language collections. Although The Rise of the Arabic Book centers the Arabic world, Gruendler manages to cover hot topics in Western special collections such as authorship, materials science, and the oral tradition. Gruendler offers pithy and often humorous anecdotes about the history of the Arabic book that will catch the attention of even the most disengaged undergraduate. For instance, the story of the poet Di’bil, murdered in the goriest fashion for satirizing the Abbasid caliphs, has definite sticking power. The story’s broader lesson about the power of speech is equally resonant. As special collections professionals strive to diversify their collections and provide a more global perspective, The Rise of the Arabic Book opens the door into a book culture with considerable worldwide influence (422 million Arabic speakers and counting).

Gruendler’s aim with The Rise of the Arabic Book is to spark interest in investigating the Arabic book. In her Conclusion, she presents numerous avenues for further study such as text alteration by copyists, a digitized survey of ninth-century artifacts, and even comparative study of other pre-print book cultures. Gruendler clearly views this work as the core background text to a new area of scholarly engagement. While I cannot comment on where her work sits within a broader scholarly tradition, I can definitively say that she has inspired me to learn more about the book culture of the Arabic world, and I have no doubt that The Rise of the Arabic Book will do the same for every rare book and manuscript professional who encounters it.

--Jessa Feiler