Pass the tortoise shell

Eve Houghton:

The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

Furthermore, the “history” of the book might not capture the full range and diversity of a scholarly endeavour that now encompasses work in literary studies, sociology, anthro­pology and computer science. Data-driven projects such as the Open University’s Reading Experience Database consider histories of book ­provenance and use on an aggregate scale. Advanced word and phrase search functions in databases such as Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library have allowed a ­computational approach to traditional literary-critical investigations concerning questions of style, authorship and literary influence. Online collections – among them Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online – have replaced reels of microfilm with digital images. The field Robert Darnton described in the early 1980s as “the social and cultural history of communication by print” now involves objects of inquiry and methodological approaches that would have been hard to imagine even a few decades ago, such as work on “born-digital” archives (such as emails and Word documents) or computer models that can superimpose historical records of book ownership over geographic data.