Daily Archives: October 24, 2009

An Author Thanks His Collaborative Readers

My warmest thanks to Dave Mazella, Eleanor Shevlin, and Joseph Byrne for their perceptive comments on The Enlightenment and the Book. I found the summaries of the introduction and four of the chapters detailed and accurate, and the commentary interesting and engaging. I am of course delighted that you all found so many good things to say about the book. It was very gratifying.

Here are some of the comments that I found particularly useful and provocative:

  • Eleanor’s distinction between the sociological and the sociohistorical
  • Eleanor’s suggestion that I may actually be presenting the practices of authors rather than a model of authorship
  • Dave and Joseph’s perceptions that chapters that I thought presented pretty strong arguments were “descriptive” rather than “argumentative,” and the ways that this distinction was explored
  • Dave’s question about who the “losers” were (are there always winners and losers?), and Joseph’s remarks about the losers being at the low end of the publishing spectrum (chapbooks and such)
  • Eleanor’s questioning my use of the term “Places” in the section of chapter 3 titled “Patrons, Publishers, and Places” (in my quest for alliteration, I may have failed to realize that the term is ambiguous in that context, though I meant it only to mean positions; I know, that term would have been alliterative too, but “places” is a more authentic eighteenth-century word)
  • Joseph’s point about my being too hard on Constable and publishing in nineteenth-century Edinburgh (maybe so: I would be the first to say that I am no expert on nineteenth-century publishing; if my book encourages others to establish on firm grounds what has up to now been accepted only on hearsay, I will be quite happy with that outcome)
  • Dave’s reluctance to follow his instincts to “Matt’s and Jery’s visit to the Grubs in Humphry Clinker” when reading my chapter 2, because “Sher is to some extent trying to wrest book history away from the preoccupations of literary history” (not at all, Dave! I am trying to fashion a form of book history that will be helpful to literary history. If my book helps literary historians in any way, I shall be very pleased to know it.)

I was also interested in the ongoing discussion about subjects omitted from the book or not developed enough there. Ephemera headed the list, but Dave also mentioned genre as a subject worthy of further consideration, and reading came up too. Eleanor I think alluded to a review by Roger Emerson which argues that my book pays too much attention to book publishing at the expense not of other areas of print culture such as reading and ephemera but of patronage and other matters. I find this a difficult and sometimes frustrating line of criticism (especially so in the case of Emerson’s review, which seems to me to be more about his own work than mine). For that reason I was pleased to see that the discussion in this forum raised the issue of exactly how ephemera might have been relevant to this particular book and seemed to conclude that it would not be. I can certainly see how topics such as the reception of Scottish Enlightenment books and Continental European reprints and translations of them might have been added to the book, but I don’t see how I could have done them justice within a reasonable time frame and a reasonable number of pages (some would say that the number of pages is already unreasonable!). In his recent review of my book in the Journal of Modern History (81, June 2009, 405–407), Adrian Johns points out some of these missing elements (e.g., how the books under discussion were read and what role Continental Europe played) but then concludes, generously and I think fairly: “Such self-denying ordinances, while they may be controversial, are also defensible; it is arguably thanks to them that the book’s conclusions can rest on such firm empirical grounds. Still, authoritative as The Enlightenment and the Book is, there remains room for a volume 2.” (407) I am full agreement with Joseph’s statement that print culture (or whatever we call it – I’m not going to go there!) is “a continuum, including ephemera, magazines, newspapers, and of course books” (pamphlets too), and I also believe that these formats, as well as reading and reception, are as important as components of print culture as book publishing. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect all the components to be present in every volume.

One of the early posts provided excerpts from several of the reviews of the book. I have seen about thirty reviews so far, and I have been very pleased with the reception. But one point has surprised and disappointed me. Although the book has “America” in its title and contains two chapters on American print culture during the late eighteenth century, no notice has been taken of the book in any journal devoted to American history, literature, or culture. Why is that, I wonder?

 Finally, I have some thoughts about error and correction. This topic is very much on my mind these days because I am currently having discussions with my publisher about whether the paperback edition of The Enlightenment and the Book, which is supposed to appear in 2010, will or will not contain corrections. Because the smart money at the moment is that it won’t, I intend to discuss some of these errors and their corrections in a separate post. But for now, I will simply note that readers should be careful about accepting information uncritically just because it appears in precise-looking tables or appendices. (I am thinking mainly of the appendices in another book that came up frequently in the blogs on my book, but the same rule applies to every book, mine included.)

Thanks again for all your comments.

RBS