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2010-12, 367, 368, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘The Oxford Companion to the Book’ Edited by Michael F Suarez and HR Woudhuysen

OUP. 1,392 pp. $450

IF THE PRINTED BOOK is going to have a memorial to its passing, then The Oxford Companion to the Book (OCB) is perfect timing. It is certainly a monumental work in two small folio volumes with nearly 1,400 pages, bound in red imitation leather, all enclosed in a slipcase. The over one million words have been written by 398 scholars from 27 countries, who cover the book in the broadest possible sense.

The editors, Michael F Suarez, Director of the Rare Book School in Virginia and HR Woudhuysen, Professor of English at University College London, write that they have ‘ventured to produce a global work’, taking the reader from Mount Athos to Mainz and Shanghai, and ‘intended to lead readers to forge creative and serendipitous connections’. They are fully aware of the limitations of compiling a reference work ‘that reflects a passion for the artefact, a fascination with the many aspects of bibliography and book history, and a deep regard for the archive’.

The OCB is divided into two significant parts, spread over the two volumes. The first, making up about a third of the text, comprises 51 essays (19 thematic studies, 32 national/regional histories of the book). The Part I introductory essays, written by a largely impressive array of experts, survey the book in its widest sense from writing systems to the ebook. The national/regional histories of the book give a special emphasis to Anglo-Saxon and European countries in terms of length of coverage, but nonetheless there are major articles covering, for example, Latin America, South East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Part 2 is an A–Z reference glossary with 5,160 entries. Both parts are extensively linked by cross references. The first page of the A–Z glossary is a wonderful melange of topics, symptomatic of the riches of the whole. Thus the first page includes entries on the Leiden bookseller/publisher Pieter van der Aa (1659–1733), Abagar, the first Bulgarian printed book (1651) and the English book collector, John Roland Abbey (1894–1969). The index finishes with Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), the Austrian writer and book collector.

This A–Z section also provides the stuff of literary trivia nights. Did you know that a ‘colporteur’ was a medieval wandering bookseller, not a song writer; that ‘stalags’ are not only concentration camps but also pornographic pocket books in modern Hebrew, while Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally titled Tenderness? If you don’t know the difference between provenance and prospectus; a broadsheet and a broadside; bibliomancy, bibliomania and bibliopole, or an inscribed copy and a book with an inscription, then this is the glossary for you.

Despite the size of the two volumes, the limited space to cover so much, necessarily constrains authors, so that Ian Morrison‘s somewhat eclectic overview chapter on The History of the Book in Australia, needs to be supplemented by more comprehensive analyses, such as those cited in his short bibliography. Similarly, in relation to the history of the book in America, serious readers need to refer to the recently completed A History of the Book in America published by the University of North Carolina.

The OCB in one sense, as the editors recognise, is obsolete on publication day, in that it is a physical object frozen in time. The Oxford University Press therefore were quick off the mark in providing an online version <www.oxford-bookcompanion.com> which will allow for easy textual updating and cross referencing. Updating is needed as we reach the current day because net details become quickly dated. Thus, the entry on Wikipedia is dated October 2007, thereby making the quoted totals significantly out of date. Many URLs in the article texts have the words ‘consulted in 2007’. Three years is a long time in the digital world.

Eileen Gardiner and Ronald G Musto‘s article on ‘The Electronic Book’ also faces the problem of commenting on fast moving events and technologies with URL references all dated July 2007, thus missing the Google books controversy and the explosion of ebook readers. The entry on the ‘Electronic Catalogue’ is even more dated with references only to 2005 and 2006 and the obvious conclusion that ‘future years should witness major changes in the electronic catalogue’. The article on the ‘Economics of Print’ by Alexis Weedon is overly focused on the 19th century, while issues for most of the 20th century, let alone the 21st century to date, are ignored.

Some further small criticisms. Given the cost of the book and the overall sumptuous nature of the production, it is a pity that the 170 illustrations are in black and white rather than colour which would have been more appropriate for reproductions of illuminated manuscripts. Readers may take exception to selection balance in the A to Z glossary, for example, in libraries and authors. With reference to libraries, the University of Sydney library will be pleased it has a slightly larger entry than the National Library of Australia.

For authors, we get entries for William Makepeace Thackeray and Henry Fielding but not Charles Dickens, although there are numerous cross references to Dickens in the index. The entry on science fiction, strangely by an expert on Russian economics, while historically sound in summary, is woefully deficient for the last four decades in coverage and analysis. Fantasy as a major publishing phenomenon fares not much better for the contemporary period, while the detective (not crime) fiction entry is so short as to be almost meaningless.

The editors state, in their defence, quoting Dr Johnson, ‘a large work is difficult because it is large’. The editors have done remarkably well in bringing to book such a plethora of authors and subjects. Every library with pretensions to supporting culture should purchase the OCB, as the price range will put it out of reach for most individuals. Certainly this reviewer will treasure it as a source of authority for the vast majority of topics covered. OUP are to be congratulated for initiating such an ambitious scholarly project.

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