From Compositors to Collectors: Essays on Book-Trade History

Edited by John Hinks & Matthew Day. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press; London: The British Library, 2012. xviii, 382 pp. (illus.) $75 (hardcover). ISBN: 9781584563013 (Oak Knoll). 9780712358729 (British Library).

Since 1996, the Print Networks conference series has explored, with great energy, a broad array of topics related to the British book trade. Ten volumes of essays that have appeared under the Print Networks Series imprint attest to the success of the conferences. From Compositors to Collectors is the eleventh volume in the aforementioned series, a collection of nineteen essays selected from Print Networks conferences held between 2006 and 2009.

It is expressly understood that the focus herein is not on the book as a material object, but on the “post-materiality” of books and the inter-agency of their manifestation, reception, circulation, and preservation. If only for the sake of convenience the collection is divided into two parts: “From Compositor” and “To Collectors.” The editors were mindful that such a division is artificial.

The arrangement of the essays within each part is generally chronological. The subjects of the investigations date from 1661 to 2007, and are , by design, principally Anglo-centric. Would that all nineteen essays could be discussed in great detail; they merit considerable attention.

Part One (“From Compositor”) begins with Mariko Nagase’s investigation into “The Publication of The Mayor of Quinborough (1661) and the Printer's Identity” (3-26), a very thorough examination of an Elizabethan play, specifically its transmission from theater to reader by way of printer and stationer. Through typographical evidence, Nagase identifies the printer (John Macocke), and in doing so establishes a very high standard of scholarship for the essayists to follow.

In “‘Generally Very Tedious, Often Trifling’: Promoting Eighteenth-Century Travel Collections” (27-42), Matthew Day presents an intriguing study on travel writing in the eighteenth century, easily one of the most popular literary genres in Britain during this era, and one which has received far too little scholarly attention of late.

Critical attention to early editorial activities is given by Daniel Cook (“Labor ipse voluptas: John Nichols’s Swiftiana,” 43-62). In this essay, Cook describes the little-known editorial activities John Nichols, eighteen-century printer, antiquarian, and collector of English and Irish manuscripts. An account of Thomas Ruddiman (1647-1757), who for fifty years served the Library of the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh, is presented by Brian Hillyard in his excellent essay “Thomas Ruddiman: Librarian, Publisher, Printer and Collector” (83-107).

The textual consequences of certain Anglo-American literary pirates are recounted in Stephen Brown’s “Pirates, Editors and Readers: How Distribution Rewrote William Smellie’s Philosophy of Natural History” (63-82). Here Brown records a curious case of literary piracy from Edinburgh to Dublin, Boston, and elsewhere.

Publishers’ marketing strategies are addressed specifically in two admirable, but very different papers. The first of these is Jim Cheshire’s “The Poet and His Publishers: Shaping Tennyson’s Public Image” (109-132), a fascinating discussion of one of the most famous authorial “brands” of the nineteenth century. The central question was: “what form [Tennyson’s] fame took, and who had the power to shape it” (110). The second of these is Rachel Bower’s “The Operation of Literary Institutions in the Construction of National Literary Aesthetics in Fadia Faqir's My Name is Salma (2007)” (181-196). Bower offers a highly interesting study of the publisher’s varied marketing efforts in the post-9/11 era (the novel was published in sixteen countries and translated into thirteen languages). Bower concludes that the presentation of the physical book, the title, and even portions of the text, were all manipulated according to post-9/11 national mythologies, not only in the U.S. and Britain, but in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Towards our understanding of nineteenth-century periodical publications, Catherine Delafield has contributed “Text in Context: The Law and the Lady and The Graphic” (133-153). Critical study of nineteenth-century fiction is futile without a real understanding of the periodical publications in which said texts first appeared. Indeed, serials such as The Graphic and its competitor The Illustrated London News constituted the original textual experience for a huge number of British readers at that time.

Part Two (“To Collectors”) is as rewarding as Part One. Daniel Starza Smith’s essay “‘La conquest du sang real’: Edward, Second Viscount Conway's Quest for Books” (199-216) is noteworthy. Conway (1594-1655) had two huge libraries, one at the family’s Irish estate (Lisnagarvey, Ulster) and the other in London. It is of the greatest interest that manuscript catalogues of the libraries survive; Smith’s analysis of these catalogues makes for compelling reading. The first line of Smith’s essay is an extraordinary quotation that provides a rationale for the essays that follow, and merits reprinting here: “A large and careful English library catalogue is […] the shortest and most accurate route to a knowledge of what was known in Renaissance England about any subject” (199). 1

Other absorbing essays include Iain Beavan’s “Who was Dr. James Fraser of Chelsea?” (217-233). The manuscript catalogue of Titus Wheatcroft (1679-1762) is assessed by Maureen Bell (233-260). A study of Scottish Freemason songbooks (before and after Burns) is presented by Stephen W. Brown (261-278). William Noblett’s account of “The Sale of James West's Library in 1773” (279-295) will appeal greatly to antiquarian bibliographers, as will Lindsay Levy’s “Was Sir Walter Scott a Bibliomaniac?” (309-321). Collectors of ephemeral materials also receive critical attention: K.A. Manly presents an excellent study on the Twopenny Libraries in England during the 1930s (341-356). The volume concludes with a novel study on the USA Armed Service Editions during the 1930s, well written by Helen Smith (357-374).

It is regrettable that book reviews are by necessity constrained by space, and in this regard the present review is not exceptional. To summarize: the essays in question are of very high quality overall. Students and scholars of the history of books will greatly benefit from the authors’ reliance on primary source materials. From Compositor to Collection is a very worthy addition to the Print Network series.

Michael Laird, University of Texas at Austin

  • 1. The quotation is from Sears Jayne and Francis R. Johnson, The Lumley Library: The Catalogue of 1609. London: British Museum, 1956, 28-29).