The History of the Book

Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray


Since most media historians have yet to engage fully the history of the book (HOB), this essay provides a critical introduction to the approach. It discusses the approach's problematical object of study and characterizes its current practice as a postmodern performance of liberal “cultural poetics” rejecting grand narratives, whether the radical history of capitalism's emergence or the conservative history of ideas. We explain HOB's dynamics in terms of its emergence in the 1980s, which coincided with that of the history of the American book (HOAB). Both HOB and, particularly, HOAB were part of a “cultural turn” deployed by displaced intellectual historians against the New Social History (NSH), associated with quantitative or even systematic inquiry present in other national HOB traditions, especially in France's Annales School. Adopting the cultural history spirit of that tradition while replacing its research techniques with almost exclusively qualitative interpretation, HOAB also occluded a range of North American antecedents in journalism and literary studies, including bibliography, but in a way that put the latter to the service of cultural ends. As the new millennium approached, the HOB landscape shifted with the rise of reader-and-reception studies that reset the approach's course from books themselves to what books meant to specific end-users as evidenced in their literary practices. The essay ...

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