Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 June 2000
The expanding interest in book history over recent years has heralded the coming together of an interdisciplinary research community drawing scholars from a variety of literary, historical and cultural studies. Moreover, with a growing body of literature, the field is becoming increasingly visible on a wider scale, not least through the existence of the Society for the History of Authorship, Readership and Publishing (SHARP), with its newly founded journal Book History. Within the history of science, however, there remains not a little scepticism concerning the practical value of such an approach. It is often dismissed as an intellectual fad or as an enterprise which is illuminating but ultimately peripheral, rather than being valued as an approach which can offer major new insights within the field. This is no doubt in part because much of the most innovative work in history of science over recent years has been carried out by historians anxious to get away from an earlier overemphasis on printed sources. Eager to correct a profoundly unsocial history of ideas, usually rooted in texts, historians have looked increasingly to both the practices and the material culture of science. In such a context, a renewed focus on the history of books sometimes seems like a retrograde step, especially given the common misidentification of ‘books’ with ‘texts’. On the contrary, however, it is just such a twin emphasis on practices and material culture which also characterizes the new book history. Indeed, to the question ‘what is book history for?’ we might answer that its object is to reintroduce social actors, engaged in a variety of practices with respect to material objects, into a history in which books have too often been understood merely as disembodied texts, the meaning of which is defined by singular, uniquely creative authors, and is transparent to readers.
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