Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book, Introduction

At the close of his introduction to The Enlightenment and the Book, Rick Sher summarizes the primary question his book seeks to answer: “how best to comprehend … the intricate, complex, expansive, and intimidating” maze that constitutes eighteenth-century book culture in order to facilitate its navigation (40). The pages preceding this query suggest that the work will serve as a highly able, thoughtful, and methodologically innovative guide in executing this task. Detailing why this task matters in the context of book history as well as Enlightenment studies, these pages indicate that this book will respond to unanswered needs within and across these two fields of academic inquiry as it charts new paths for both.

The introduction is divided into two main parts—TOWARD A BOOK HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT and DESIGNS AND DISCLAIMERS—and each of these parts is divided into two sections. In the first section of Toward a Book History of the Scottish Enlightenment, “The Problem of Enlightenment Publishing,” Sher briefly reviews the widely recognized role of book culture in the Enlightenment and addresses Britain’s place at the forefront of the developments affecting book culture during the eighteenth century. This overview prepares for an assertion that signals the meta-exigence for his study: “[T]he book history of the Enlightenment, especially the English-language Enlightenment, remains a story waiting to be told” (5).

The heart of this story for Sher is the relationship between authors and booksellers during the second half of the eighteenth century. Changes were afoot for both—authorship, for example, acquired a place within commercial relations, and considerable publishing houses appeared. Yet alongside these transformations, many other aspects of the trade remained intact. Publishers still engaged in other aspects of the trade such as bookselling, printing, and the like, while exchanges between authors and publishers still retained their personal character (5). Stressing a dialectic relationship between print and history as well as the importance of author-publisher partnerships, Sher asserts that “Enlightenment book culture, then, was a negotiated collaborative, often contested activity that occurred within the economic, technological, legal, and intellectual contexts of the day” (7). What much of this discussion aims to effect is a realization of the crucial but understudied role that eighteenth-century publishers played in deciding which books were made available to the public and the material forms those books assumed.

In addition to the author-publisher dynamic, Sher identifies two other areas in which methodological issues arise—questions concerning those of place and kind (8). On both counts Sher argues for an expansive view. Embracing the need for an international approach, he points to the longstanding recognition that books are foremost international commodities whose influence and interrelationships with one another refuse restriction to local or national borders:

the key to understanding the relationship between print and knowledge lies not in any particular local context but rather in the dynamic interplay of authors, publishers, and other members of the book trade in a variety of locations. Enlightenment book history must be viewed through a wide geographical lens. (9)

Despite this recognition, as Sher notes, the adoption of international approaches has remained largely an unfulfilled desire. Instead energy has been devoted to compiling national histories of the book, work that Sher appreciates but also warns must not be seen as an end in and of themselves but rather as stages toward achieving a firmer international grasp of the field (9). [Some book historians have viewed these national histories as essential preparatory work to more international approaches—and at times the production of these histories have reinforced the crucial need for international work as well as identified directions this work might take.] Similarly, he stresses the benefits of studying multiple genres as opposed to limiting studies to a single type of works. A focus on only a particular kind of books risks drawing skewed conclusions about publishing practices (10).

What this section establishes is

the need for a kind of book history that takes seriously and explores fully—in multiple genres and in local, national, and international contexts—the values, aspirations, actions, and interactions of eighteenth-century authors and publishers, and that does not seek to restrict one to the realm of the mind and the other to the purse. (11)

This book responds to this need by attending to Scottish Enlightenment authors and publishers as well as those who reprinted their works in order to illustrate the “symbiotic relationship” that existed between “developments in eighteenth-century publishing … and the Scottish Enlightenment” (11).

Having detailed the methodological approach that The Scottish Enlightenment and the Book will take and the rationale for its adoption, Sher then moves from book history concerns to Enlightenment historiography. While “From the Enlightenment to the Scottish Enlightenment” establishes the meaning his work accords to the term “Enlightenment,” the section also positions his study as an alternative approach to the impasses and defensive positions currently characterizing scholarship in this field. The section opens with the recent battering the Enlightenment has taken at the hands of postmodernist critics, Tracing the academic roots of anti-Enlightenment thought back to the early 1930s, it briefly rehearses the subsequent development of Enlightenment critiques (11-12). After observing that “most of these modern and postmodern critics have had only a superficial familiarity with the Enlightenment,” Sher sketches the general types of responses that Enlightenment scholars have offered to counter this disparagement, including those that debate whether the term should be singular or plural (13-14).

From here Sher turns to exploring ways to invigorate Enlightenment studies. Again the emphasis is placed on breadth and multiplicity: “[T]he Enlightenment should be viewed as a very big movement, requiring correspondingly broad conceptualization, geographically, intellectually, and socially. The Enlightenment may be perceived as a grand symphony with multiple variations” (15). He follows with a more detailed explanation of the suitability of adopting a definition that is broad yet still singular. More specifically, the definition must be able to handle recognitions that ideas emerged and were exchanged from a plurality of geographical sites, flowed in multiple directions, and were not confined to one disciplinary path such as political philosophy or science (15-16). The “common core” of the Enlightenment for Sher is in a “set of general values” found among Enlightenment proponents no matter their geographic or national location. This open-ended list of values, rendered general enough to encompass national differences, includes—and I closely paraphrase—a commitment to improvement (typically at all levels); an empathetic, cosmopolitan sensibility towards others; a respect and penchant for sociability; toleration towards religious differences and attitudes as well as a belief in the freedoms of worship, speech, and written expression (despite varied attitudes about the limits of these freedoms); an embracement of intellectual pursuits (Kant’s dictum ‘dare to know’) and related belief in the power of learning; and aesthetic appreciation for the arts (16-17). Viewing the Enlightenment through the prism of this value set fosters the traversing of national and disciplinary boundaries while providing an overarching unity that can accommodate variations (17).

Returning to his earlier musical analogy, Sher focuses on the Scottish Enlightenment as a variation within the grand symphony that is the Enlightenment. While scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment has escaped, by and large, the disputes detailed in the previous discussions (was it good or evil, singular or plural), its study has been stymied by two opposing views that either regard it as the force responsible for creating modernity or deny it a separate existence, treating it instead under the rubric of the British Enlightenment (18-19). As an alternative to these two polar treatments, Sher defines the Scottish variation as

the Scottish manifestation of the international movement dedicated to the proliferation of polite, morally and intellectually edifying literature and learning during the eighteenth century, written by authors whose work can be identified with the general values of the Enlightenment discussed earlier. … a cultural and intellectual phenomenon not reducible to any single branch, school, or mode of thought…. [its] books … were influential disproportionately in certain areas and were conspicuous in shaping modern disciplines and academic fields. … so much of this literature was written by individuals who associated with one another, socially and professionally, in the urban centers of Scotland, and sometimes also in London, and moved easily as authors from one enlightened genre to another. This sense of social, intellectual, and cultural integration and cohesiveness gives a distinctive character to the Scottish Enlightenment, setting it apart from the Enlightenment in England. (20)

To flesh out this formulation of the Scottish Enlightenment, Sher compares Franco Venturi’s view of Scottish Enlightenment literati as a distinctive, highly socially and personally unified body matched only by that of the French philosophes to Roy Porter’s preference for “Karl Mannheim’s notion of a ‘free’ (or free-floating) intelligentsia,” which, in turn, supports Porter’s view of a single British Enlightenment (21). Siding with Venturi’s recognition of the powerful role Scottish authors played, Sher explains that “this work is about the disproportionately large Scottish component in Enlightenment book culture and the immense contribution of the book trade in cultivating it” (22). One of its central concerns, then, is how the world of books and publishing fed the development of the Scottish Enlightenment and facilitated its spread beyond England and Scotland (23).

Widely disseminated, Scottish books fueled the spread and influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on the Continent. Yet addressing these Continental dimensions of the Scottish Enlightenment would necessitate translation skills and raise methodological issues that are beyond the scope of this study. The international dimension of the Scottish Enlightenment is thus confined to “the spread of Scottish books to the English-speaking Atlantic world during late eighteenth century, especially as a result of reprinting in Dublin and Philadelphia” (23). As has been a constant theme in detailing this work’s methodologies, emphasis is placed on an approach that embodies dynamic interactions, geographic comprehensiveness, and generic inclusiveness. And once again this approach is presented a means of correcting existing shortcomings, in this case those affecting Atlantic studies. As the last chapters will demonstrate, book history, because of its range of interests and highly varied components, offers “one way to reconceptualize the Atlantic world and transcend the British-North America dichotomy” (24).

As its title suggests, the introduction’s second part, Designs and Disclaimers, addresses what the work will not cover and provides a schematic overview of the chapters that follow. In the first section of this part, “Copyright and Reading,” Sher discusses what he sees as an overemphasis on copyright law as a defining factor of eighteenth-century British book history. That this emphasis has created an “authorial bias” to scholarship has led to distortions of British book culture during this century (25). Such a bias, moreover, works against Sher’s design of recuperating the role of the publishers in this culture and exploring the collaborative dynamics between authors and publishers, especially in the production of new works (26). The inordinate attention to the regulation of literary property has also obscured other, significant interests and concerns that motivated publishers. Attention to copyright law, moreover, has often intersected with studies of reading and reception, most recently in William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period that argues for key role played by the 1774 Donaldson v. Becket decision in creating this “reading nation” (27). As he has done throughout the introduction, Sher incorporates critique—in this case, of St. Clair’s work—alongside a presentation of his own approach to explain and ground his approach. Arguing that the roots of Britain as a reading nation stretch back much farther than 1774, Sher challenges St. Clair’s arguments concerning the revolutionary effects that the House of Lords’ decision exercised over the production and affordability of (and thus access to) books by drawing attention to actual practices (28-29). He does note, however, that St. Clair’s view of the formation of an ‘old canon’ during the second half of the eighteenth century, which endured through the mid-nineteenth century, is essentially sound (30).

While his study does not engage with reading and reception issues, Sher acknowledges the importance of conducting empirical research to gain a better understanding them and cites David Allen’s recent work in these areas. At the same time the privileging of reading and reception at the expense of attention to production, in part a result of the ascendancy of reader-response theory, has necessitated an adjustment and justifies renewing attention to publishing. As Sher points out, reception of works in the eighteenth century depended on publishing (31). Indeed, the “process of making and marketing books and the nature of books themselves must be recognized as crucial factors in shaping reading and reception” (32). This “process of making and marketing of books,” moreover, encompasses not only the material appearances of books (the typography, layout, and so forth that influence reading) but also a wide range of factors related to supply and accessibility of books, including the price, print run size, advertising methods, promotional campaigns, and author-publisher(s) contractual agreements and all of which exercised various degrees of influence on reception (32). To illustrate how a better understanding of book production and distribution can enhance our knowledge of reception, Sher contrasts a view of Hugh Blair’s sermon “On Sensibility” based on attention to its text alone against one that incorporates a book historical approach (32-34). This example serves as a larger reminder of how study that focuses on issues that concern production and distribution, as Sher work does for the Scottish Enlightenment, “can help us recover the contemporary meaning of published books” (34). Rather than “Abandoning the Author, Transforming the Text, and Re-Orienting the Reader,” Sher’s work advocates as it executes “Revitalizing the Author and the Publisher, Re-Situating the Text within the Book, and Re-Orienting the Reader” (34).

The final section, “Things to Come” summarizes the organization of each chapter and the progression of the arguments the book advances.

As this overview suggests, Sher outlines an ambitious project that seeks both to re-direct energies from the impasses and stagnation in Enlightenment scholarship (effected, in part, by the excesses of postmodern theorizing) and to debunk myths that have arisen about the trade as a result of too little attention to historical realities and replace them with a much richer, accurate understanding of the practices governing publishing during the eighteenth century. No doubt because of my own work on a publisher-bookseller, I agree wholeheartedly with his claims that exploration of these agents has been neglected and welcome the stress his book places on this role as well as that of the reprinters who followed. Without a better understanding of their role it seems we are missing a crucial piece of not just publishing history but literary history, too. Similarly, Sher’s call to attend to multiple genres seems useful for literary historians to heed as well as scholars of the Enlightenment. Increasingly, I have been drawn to investigating the relationship between the novel especially but other “literary” genres as well within the larger corpus of print production. From the stance of book history, his critiques of current work seem measured and balanced. Given Sher’s interest in correcting myths, Stephen Brown’s critique in .PBSA about the work’s neglect of ephemera seems an apt point to raise but, in my mind, does not result in marring the study’s impressive accomplishments. Whether Sher gives short shrift to anti-Enlightenment critics, as Richard Macksey insinuates, or whether he privileges publishing to the exclusion of other factors affecting the Scottish Enlightenment, as Roger Emerson, suggests are matters we might wish to discuss. As for how well his study fulfills the goals he outlines here, our discussions of later chapters will no doubt assess the work’s overall strengths and shortcomings.


13 responses to “Richard Sher’s Enlightenment and the Book, Introduction

  1. Eleanor, thanks for this very lucid overview of Sher’s book and its aims. I think this book is most valuable when it replaces our citations of an omnipresent and undifferentiated “print culture” with a more determinate social process unfolding over time and across geographical boundaries.

    A book this big and ambitious cannot be faulted for what it doesn’t focus upon, but one of the elements I found myself wishing for was a more comprehensive treatment of genre and discourse. What were the hierarchies of genre and discourse at the beginning and end of the period, and what might account for those changes? There were tantalizing glimpses, for example of literary history in the midst of his publisher-centered account, but I found myself wondering, for example, about the preponderance of particular genres at particular times. So what role does genre play in this book, or do others feel that such a focus would detract from his analysis of production or reception?


  2. Eleanor Shevlin


    Your comment that Sher’s book is most valuable for its affording a concrete, grounded account of print as a dynamic social process is quite interesting to me for several reasons. For one, I have often become frustrated by essays that reference if not purport to engage more thoroughly with “print culture” but ultimately employ the term in superficial ways–more as a fashionable buzz word. In other words, I think your comment points to the ways that “print culture” has acquired a certain trendiness that does not do justice to the work of those who are seriously pursuing its study. Secondly (and perhaps related to my first point), I took it as a given that Sher’s work would offer a substantive , fleshed-out account of print within a particular context–because that’s what I expect/anticipate from accounts by those working in book history. That said, the success of works produced under the rubric of book history can vary greatly (Sher’s critique of Johns’s The Nature of the Book matched some of the issues I had with it–in my mind it should have been titled “The Nature of the Scientific Book in Early Modern England”; Sher also offers a sound critique of the shortcomings of St. Clair’s impressively ambitious Reading Nation as does Tom Bonnell, though his critique focuses more on bibliographic issues–see Bonnell, “When book history neglects bibliography: Trouble with the “old canon” in the Reading Nation,”Studies in Bibliography, 57 [2005-2006]: 243-261). So in terms of assessing its value from the perspective of book history, I approached Sher’s book with questions about how well it would render its account of print’s interactions and what were its substantive as well as methodological contributions to this necessarily interdisciplinary field. As my overivew of Sher’s introduction no doubt suggested, I found his work to score very high on both counts. Methodologically, one of the many strengths of The Enlightenment and the Book was its integration of bibliographic and sociohistorical matters.

    I have much to say on genre–and will post on that after dinner.

  3. Well, I think I’m coming to Sher from the opposite direction: an interest in Enlightenment historiography, which has always relied on some model of Enlightenment as the “democratization and the diffusion of knowledge.” “Print culture,” or more recently “print capitalism” have been used to designate this process, but I do think Sher fleshes out these concepts very effectively in this narrative.

    What I like about the Sher account is precisely its ability to mobilize Enlightenment tropes about the collective, collaborative dimensions of the production of knowledge, but in the realm of book production as a “dynamic social process.”

    What I’m less sure about is how this affects Enlightenment historiography: does it really revise our view of the single/multiple Enlightenment(s) debate, for example? It does seem to set up a very interesting model of transnational diffusion of knowledge, but to what extent does that transnational process inflect the so-called “common core” of Enlightenment values.

    So those are the kinds of questions I was developing as I read Sher.


  4. Eleanor Shevlin

    Thnaks, Dave– Yes, I imagined that you (and others) would be approaching Sher’s work from completely different angles than mine–and that’s one of the reasons I was very pleased that we were having this collaborative reading.

    Like Dave, I would be interested in hearing what others who are coming to this work from the perspective of Enlightenment historiography have to say about its contributions. Sher’s use of the grand symphony analogy seemed an apt way to convey an overarching movement while enabling a focus on local variations.

  5. Eleanor Shevlin

    Literary historians could build on Sher’s work and extend its “tantalizing glimpses” of genre and literary history. Much work in book history has come out of English departments, and there has consequently been, as Sher notes in the introduction, a heavy emphasis on traditional literary genres–drama, novels, poetry.

    That for much of the century books catalogues and other forms of textual works arranged by categories adhered to different textual classification schemes than those used today is worth noting. Format, for one, was a key way of organizing texts. And, of course, format was a factor in creating meaning and often spoke to a work’s status as well.

    As for hierarchies of genres, they certainly existed then as they do now–but I am not sure how pertinent such discussion would be to Sher’s book and similar projects. The authors he considers (as well as many that are not included) wrote in multiple genres. As it does today, deciding upon which genre to use was a decision closely tied to a given author’s aims, message, and audience(s). Writers no doubt would be engaged with multiple projects and multiple genres at almost any given time (even if some of those genres–personal letters, accounting records, or the like–were not the focus of publication). Readers also would not be limited to a single genre, and might read a sermon and then turn to Pamela within the span of a night (see, for example, some of the essays in James Raven, Helen Small, Naomi Tadmor’s The practice and representation of reading in England (Cambridge UP, 1996).

    A desire for more discussion of genres might be a wish for more considerations of their “use value.” A related area of investigation might explore generic incursions as well as the ways in which certain subject matter is transformed as it moves across genres. A particular author might rework his or her material–or another author might engage in reworking the material of another to suit his or her purposes. Again, these topics seem suited to pursuit in another work.

    A number of booksellers-publishers did become associated with certain genres–think of Newberry and children’s books, for one. Also, there’s the issue of different variations on a genre in order to attract particular audiences or market segments. Geographical or natural history works, for example, could range from the scholarly to the popularizations, juvenile, or even “coffee-table” type renditions.

  6. I was thinking more about genre systems than histories of single genres, and yes, obviously this is more than what Sher could do in this volume. But I suspect this awareness of the relation of genre to audience is partly what’s behind the history of Hume’s authorial reconstruction after the Treatise’s failure. Mark Salber Phillips’s work on historiography and genre deals with these questions, and some of his texts overlap, I think, with Sher’s. But these are the projects that could use Sher as a stepping-stone.

  7. Eleanor Shevlin

    Ah, that overall clarification makes (sorry that I misunderstood).

  8. OK, so I’m quite late in entering this discussion (in fact, my comments here might not be read by many, or by anyone anytime soon!). Eleanor, you do indeed offer a very lucid and helpful summary of the chapter. I’m reminded of the very best of reviews written in the eighteenth century, providing an abstract of the work and some critical perspective.

    I would agree that the non-consideration of print ephemera is problematic. I see print culture as a continuum, including ephemera, magazines, newspapers, and of course books. Many scholars and critics of print culture seem to think only the book is important, and equate book history with print culture. But print culture is so much more! I think to understand the book we need to consider its contrary relationship with other print forms, particularly plebeian forms such as the chapbook. Anyway, once I finish my dissertation (in which I deal with these issues), and publish it, you will see my critique of print-centrism…in a print book!

    My second point is somewhat of an apologia for William St. Clair. Yes, perhaps he overemphasizes the Donaldson case, but I think much of St. Clair’s analysis plays out in the nineteenth century rather than the eighteenth, in the context of Romanticism. And Romanticism, as we all know, is a very different beast than the Enlightenment!

    Joseph Byrne

  9. Eleanor Shevlin


    As you well know, “book history” is a relatively new field though many of aspects that form the discipline today have long roots as studied subjects. Still, I do think the initial focus was very much on the book, but I would argue that the other interests have steadily gained ground–you serve as one example, Joseph… Part of the problem is finding a rubric that does not automatically suggest the exclusion of other forms; the term “book history” creates an often false first impression that the field only treats books. Print culture is equally problematic if you want to include clay tablets, manuscripts (a word whose existence was tellingly born of print), and electronic forms. A few have suggested “media ecology”–which I think would generate more confusion. What I often resort to doing is writing “book history (broadly conceived to include a host of material forms)”–fairly inelegant and unwieldy.

    I am particularly interested in the interactions among these various formats. When I spoke above about generic transfaormations, I was thinking of Ralph Cohen’s look at the move from the ballads of George Barnwell to chapbooks to Lillo’s London Merchant and the import of the forms through which this narrative traveled in transforming its meaning and function.

  10. I know that piece by Ralph Cohen, and always thought that its tracking of the George Barnwell material across genres was exemplary. I think we can see a similar kind of reframing going on all the time in the translation of forms from one media to another: the example Sher gives of Hume’s repackaging of his own career shows how important the Essays were to his self-definition as author, and part of that readjustment came through reframing earlier, less polite material within polite genres and forms.

    The terminological problem is hopeless, I think: history of communications media? “Book history” has the virtue at least of concretely designating one phase of the field.

  11. Eleanor Shevlin

    I agree about Cohen’s piece–I’ve always admired it highly, too…

    And, yes, this idea of reframing and repackaging seems to be themese on multiple levels here. In much of this work Sher himself is reframing and repackaging existing conceptions of commercial operations of the trade, constructions of authorship and publishers, the careers of individuals, and so forth and supporting these revisions with rich archival evidence. At the same time, these authors and publishes were themselves engaged in such revisions.

    And yes, the terminology is “hopeless.” I do think that “book history” is the term that has won out in some ways because of its reference to “l’histoire du livre,” whose sociological methods and ties to the annales school of historiography were then joined to Anglo-American bibliographic interests.

  12. Maybe I should make it my mission to find a term that works for the ephemera crowd too. I know “print culture” is a contested term, but I do think it works (for me anyway) as a larger, umbrella term that includes ephemera, periodicals, and books.

    I must look up Cohen’s piece. It does sound like he’s doing the kind of cross-media work that I think eighteenth century studies needs. There was such a diversity of print forms in the eighteenth century, much it being developed at the same time (like the magazine, the review, and the book), with inevitable cross-pollination. I’m glad that some folks are starting to poke around in that area.

    In the meantime, it’s great that so many are working on the book as material artifact, because considerations of materiality eventually bring us back to the question of how differences in print materiality–like the material difference between a chapbook and a book–change the production, reception, and general consumption of a given print object. In other words, media matters.

  13. Eleanor Shevlin

    I have no problem with the term “print culture” whatsoever (indeed I use it quite a bit and agree that it does encompass all that you say; you might be pleased to know that Betty Eisenstein objected to the the use of the word “book” as the name for the LC’s Center for the Book) but if one wants a broad rubric to label a field that includes those who work in the pre-hand-press period and those that work in digital media, then it doesn’t work.

    Here’s the citation for Cohen’s essay:

    Cohen, Ralph. “History and Genre,” New Literary History 17.2 (Winter 1986): 203-218.

    You might also be interested in his “Genre Theory, Literary History, and Historical Change.” Theoretical Issues in Literary History. Ed. David Perkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991