History and Future of the Book: When is the Text Not Important?

For my response this week, I’ve decided to focus on Adams & Barker’s “A New Model for the Study of the Book.” The essay was originally published in 1993, so I can’t help but wonder what changes they might have made to their idea of a model since then, or how much the discipline of book study has changed—and I expect to get something of a sense of this over the next several weeks of class—but I found it very instructive to see the way they set up their idea for a new model against existing models and their purpose in doing so.

In declaring at the outset of their argument their intention to “reverse the historian’s point of view and consider, not the impact of the book on society, but that of society on the book” (49), Adams & Barker signal an important turn in the way the history of the book is thought. This move redirects the focus of book studies from a purely social history that privileges the role of the book to a history that treats the technological object of the book as an object of study in its own right. This also involves a change from a somewhat more static concept of the book, treating the book as a natural thing that acts upon society, to a concept of the book that allows us to notice and explain its changes over time; the book both influences society and is influenced by it (and vice versa).

The other change Adams & Barker declare is the new model promised by the title, updating Darnton’s model of a ‘Communications Network,’ which was built around the various people involved in the life of a book, to their own model built around the “five events in the life of a book—publishing, manufacturing, distribution, reception, and survival” (53). This updated model brings the way Adams & Barker shift the focus of book studies away from the purely social into greater relief, and they highlight this by explaining they’ve proposed this inversion because “our theme is the book rather than the people involved in its movement” (53). What it seems Adams & Barker pave the way for, then, is a study of the book that more easily accommodates a cycle of influence between the book and society, inviting an understanding of the changing purpose and role of books in society and the way society both effects and is affected by those changes.

But one other aspect of Adams & Barker’s argument seems somewhat problematic to me. Before they kick off their tour through the five events in the life of a book, they write, “The text is the reason for the cycle of the book: its transmission depends on its ability to set off new cycles” (53). Soon after this, in the first sentence of their discussion of publishing, to explain more precisely what they include in this event they write that “[p]ublishing is the name we have given to the point of departure, the initial decision to multiply a text for image or distribution” (53). In these explanations, it seems that Adams & Barker are arguing for a somewhat hard distinction between the text and the book. In the latter sentence, this is to articulate that, for instance, someone could write a text, but it’s only once the decision is made to copy and distribute that text that it becomes a book. This seems sensible enough. It seems then that in their earlier statement, by declaring the text “the reason for the cycle of the book” they are privileging the importance of the text, so that behind all the events in the life of a book is the driving force of the text. They of course emphasize the importance of non-textual aspects in the life of books, noting elsewhere the development of the book spine as a sort of place for books to advertise themselves, or similarly the increasing perceived importance of dust jackets as they became more ornamental, so it is not that they privilege the text in order to claim, for instance, that the transmission and survival of books ultimately depend on a kind of metaphysical quality inherent in their texts. But it does seem like this privileging of the text leads to an assumption that for all books, the text is still ultimately the reason for its existence—that is, the book is still in some ways most importantly a vessel for the transmission of the text. I think this is definitely true in some cases, maybe even most cases. But it does seem somewhat problematic when we try to apply this framework to certain kinds of popular fiction, and especially the case of serial novels or serialized comic books, or books of this sort. For instance, it doesn’t seem to me that in the case of popular romance novels one would get much out of a study that began by identifying a specific text and then traced it through its publishing, manufacturing, distribution, reception and survival, because in the case of popular romance novels the individual text is not such an important part their reason for existence. Consumers of romance novels don’t place too much value on any individual text, but continuously purchase new texts. It would be much more accurate to say that the creation of the texts is accomplished for the purpose of fulfilling the demand by consumers to purchase new texts than to say that the creation of the text of a romance novel then drives its publication and subsequent life as a book. That is, all of the aspects of the book itself as distinct from the text (the way Adams & Barker have separated them) could be vastly more important in understanding how romance novels exist and function  than any understanding of an individual text. So it would seem that in order for book study to more effectively treat texts such as these, it would have to call into question whether it actually is the text that is the reason for the cycle of the book.

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