The field of book history as a distinct enterprise has only recently started to take root in South Africa. As such, it is necessarily a late entrant into a field that elsewhere has been taking shape for several decades. While this belated entry poses problems, it equally presents opportunities. Like most endeavours in the humanities, book history, since its inception, has been largely national in orientation (the book in France, the book in Australia and so on). However, this national emphasis has increasingly given way to more transnational approaches, and like most disciplines, book history faces a post-nationalist intellectual climate. South African interest in book history consequently emerges at a time when “mainstream” research must of necessity reinvent itself. One useful direction, then, for South African book history to take is to conceptualise itself as transnational. In this way, local book history will be able to enter a productive dialogue with “mainstream” scholarship and will be able to formulate paradigms that illuminate both the uniqueness of South African developments and the ways in which these can be factored into a broader international story.
This essay attempts to explore these propositions in relation to what may at first appear to be a modest case study—that of the Cape Town Ladies’ Bible Association (CTLBA). However, this organisation has been chosen as it forms part of a much larger transnational landscape, namely that of nineteenthcentury Protestant evangelical reading and publishing. As others have pointed out, within the expanding world of European nineteenth-century book production, Christian religious material comprised the overwhelming proportion of what was produced (Bayly 2004, 357; Howsam 1991). However, the meaning of this fact has seldom been grasped, since studies of nineteenthcentury book production tend to follow two separate analytical channels, the one concerned with religious publishing, the other with secular enterprises. The two arms—secular and religious—are often treated discretely, the former the domain of historians of the book and publishing (Feather 1988), the latter the domain of scholarship on nineteenth-century Christianity, missions and philanthropy (Raven 2000; Maughan 1996).