Joseph A. Dane (Professor of English at USC) has written an introductory text to bibliography that is lucid, and for the most part, fun to read. After assigning my book history class large sections of Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography last year, I decided I needed a different text. I am glad I heard about Dane’s book, which offers a lighter touch with an update on early 21st century views of hand press bibliography. The book does reveal its postmodernism at certain points, but it is easy to either dive into it or avoid it.
The book’s title, What is a Book? is deceptively simple. It lets readers know they will encounter an investigation into the material aspect of the book, but once Dane starts his discussion, it quickly becomes obvious that the answer to the question is continuously elusive. The issues involved are discussed in two sections – the first provides an overview of the material book and the latter a history of book-copies.
Dane’s tone is very welcoming to the reader first encountering bibliography. He lets the reader know about important reference materials and key readings in the field and offers rich illustrations for all his points. He is also clear that it is unnecessary to be versed in every aspect of the field and to know every vocabulary word in order to apply bibliographic techniques to various projects. In fact, he barely discusses the workings of the printing press. The definitions of many words are debated, he claims, but one must have a basic understanding of terms to follow the debates of scholars. Ultimately, Dane’s goal was to challenge the grand narratives and assumptions that are now commonplace in book history and bibliography.
One way he attempts to shift the thinking of bibliographers and book historians is by continuously focusing on the difference between the book and book-copy. The book copy is the individualized material object that people hold and use, while the book is an abstract concept that allows people to speak of many copies as a unit. Too often the notions blur into one another, and Dane says this leads to false conclusions. There are so many possible ways to bring uniqueness into a book-copy, that he comes close to saying that there is no such thing as a book.
The first three chapters offer an excellent and fast-paced overview of bibliographic terms and basic materials. He then moves on to the study of the press and begins to show just how many variants can be introduced into any copy of a book. Bibliographers of the early 20th century (McKerrow, Greg, Bowers) looked at the press in order to eliminate its influences and get as close as possible to a perfect text (the narrative or argument expressed through a book as opposed to the material aspect of the book) that expresses authorial intent. Dane notes that since the late 20th century, thinkers have come to the conclusion that this is a mirage and that there is only a continuously changing “public text,” as Jerome McGann puts it. Dane is unwilling to say that this perpetual modification of a text creates a past that is unknowable. Instead, it creates a situation that is extremely obscure. He laments at the end of the book that, “for the most important things, no amount of methodological study will finally do any good” (232). In other words, bibliography can help us understand much, but we must check our hubris at the door when we deal with early printed books.
Overall, the material side of the Dane’s book seems richer, while the book-copy chapters seem less refined. In particular, the chapter on electronic book databases left this reviewer wanting deeper analysis. But that is a small criticism to make to such a good introductory text that explores theoretical issues of the book and book-copy without overwhelming the beginning student of bibliography.