The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book, ed. James Raven

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

As you would expect from an Oxford Illustrated History of … this is a sumptuous production, world-wide in scope and bringing in chapters from experts from academia to explain books and their history to us. The editor, James Raven, is Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, having been Reader in Social and Cultural History, University of Oxford, and Professorial Fellow of Mansfield College, and he’s edited and written several other major works on books and their history. As well as writing a long and detailed introduction, he contributes to the chapter on the Renaissance and Reformation.

A large proportion of the Introduction is taken up with the fascinating question of what exactly is a book. Can a person transmitting an oral history be classed as a book (probably not)? What about potsherds recording business information, scratched on where space can be found? A roll of scroll, a few papyrus leaves? How about newspapers and periodicals, not considered books by most but intrinsic to the history of the book and publishing (these are included to a useful degree)? In fact, this is an overarching theme of the book, with the chapter on the earliest books pondering how we might define them by functionality to their society rather than form, brought nicely to fruition in the final chapter, where we take a look at the futures of the book while noting that, as has happened before, e-books are tending to ape the format and arrangement, even the reading method, of print books (early Asian books were block-printed to represent the manuscripts they replaced, for example, and the double columns of early Bibles echoed the way of laying out papyrus rolls).

The book itself takes a thoroughly global perspective, with major chapters on South and East Asia, China, Japan and Korea and the Islamic world and one late one on the globalisation of the book trade, including a lot of detail on censorship and copyright, and areas such as South America are also included, especially in discussions of the oldest forms of books, which were suppressed by colonialists. Colonialists also sought later to drag countries that were happily using wood block (xylography) and other non-moveable-type technologies such as lithography, both of which suited their writing systems better, quite happily into what they considered their modern ways, and the interplay between the two streams is fascinating. Other tensions, such as the change from paganism to Christianity in the Western world being echoed by a transition from roll to codex, or the sacred nature of the Islamic manuscript and calligraphic arts and the lack of a need for print techniques in a Mughal Empire set up with a network of scribes are also brought out. The chapters, although written by different authors, reference each other so the book feels like a whole unit.

I learned some amazing things poring over this book. Did you know that there are over 80,000 woodblocks cut in the 1230s and 1240s stored in a temple in Korea? That printed Buddhist invocations were used for miniature shrines while the texts continued to be copied by hand as an act of devotion? How long the Frankfurt Book Fair has been going on? That fancy Bibles were printed on purple paper in silver ink? That great libraries moved around Europe partly as the spoils of war?

I found Anne Blair’s chapter on Managing Information particularly interesting: it looks at how manuscripts and then books started to get paratexts within books to help the reader find sections and topics (contents pages, indexes), especially with the growth in reference books; how library catalogues, booksellers’ catalogues and periodicals containing book reviews developed to help people navigate the increasing numbers of books being published; and the development of bookshops, institutional and personal libraries and learned societies as ways of discussing and sharing books. There were even early versions of national central cataloguing systems via library catalogues being produced interleaved with blank pages for another library to add their holdings (I loved that as an ex-cataloguer).

The final chapter looks at a whole century of innovation in books and their distribution, from experimental printed works to works that move away from the form of a book into hypertext, also preserving precious texts by using digital reproductions. The new technologies for reading palimpsests of Qur’anic texts in particular have been treated further back but are also relevant here. I was pleased to find Nicholas Negroponte’s MIT Media Lab and its virtual book experiments mentioned here, as I clearly recall reading him talking about the possibility for e-books back in the 1990s before they existed.

The illustrations are absolutely beautiful, full-page, full-colour reproductions of pieces from the earliest Ethiopian goatskin Gospels to works by the Futurists of the 1930s and beyond at both ends. Careful and informative, sometimes wryly funny, captions set them off beautifully and of course all referencing of these materials is impeccable.

Instead of being peppered with footnotes and references, the editor has chosen to include a substantial bibliography for further reading on each chapter at the end of the book, which does leave it uncluttered, although a tiny bit discombobulating at first. There’s also a very useful and detailed timeline of the whole long period covered in the book, notes on the contributors which indicate the range of experts in their fields they’ve been able to attract when putting the book together, a glossary of terms covering all the chapters (although I did not find myself getting lost in any terminology; everything is clearly explained, although I acknowledge I know a bit about books and manuscripts from my previous and current work) and a full index: my pre-publication review copy only seems to have been missing the acknowledgements but I’m sure you will find those in the final print copy.

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Liz Dexter was in a past life both a Special Collections and an Acquisitions and Metadata Library Assistant and retains her love for books as objects as well as following the development of the online versions since reading about the possibilities in Nicholas Negroponte’s books. She writes about reading and running at

James Raven (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (OUP, 2020). 978-0198702986, 480 pp., col. ill.

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