Five Hundred Years of the King’s English

The Oxford University Press and the Spread of Learning: An Illustrated History

by Nicolas Barker
Oxford University Press, 332 pp., $25.00

A History of the Oxford University Press Volume I: To the Year 1780

by Harry Carter
Oxford University Press, 640 pp., $48.00

Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

by K.M. Elisabeth Murray
Yale University Press, 386 pp., $15.00

The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800

by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, translated by David Gerard
Schocken Books, 378 pp., $25.00

Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems, published by the Clarendon Press in 1912, was sent to Rupert Brooke for review. Musing upon the book as an indisputably fine thing, Brooke listed other grand institutions, including “Charing Cross Bridge by night, the dancing of Miss Ethel Levey, the Lucretian hexameter, the beer at an inn in Royston,…the sausages at another inn above Princes Risborough, and the Clarendon Press editions of the English poets.” And among these he made a temporal discrimination. “The beer and the sausages will change,” he admitted, “and Miss Levey one day will die, and Charing Cross Bridge will fall; so the Clarendon Press books will be the only thing our evil generation may show to the cursory eyes of posterity, to prove it was not wholly bad.” Peter Sutcliffe has quoted this encomium in his informal history of Oxford University Press, partly for its intrinsic interest, and partly to illustrate his assertion that by 1914 OUP had established itself “as a national institution with a responsibility to survive in the interest of civilization as a whole.”

The history of OUP is deemed to start in 1478, when a printer named Theodoric Rood came from Cologne to Oxford and published the Expositio Sancti Hieronymi in Symbolum Apostulorum. The book had two errors on its title page; one of attribution, one of typography. The true author of the Expositio was not St. Jerome but Rufinus of Aquileia, and an “x” was dropped from the Roman date, making it MCCCCLXVIII rather than 1478. It is universally agreed that OUP has greatly improved its work in both respects. The several books published to mark Oxford’s quincentenary are impeccable productions. Nicolas Barker’s illustrated history is a gorgeous book, as handsome as the exhibition held in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York to celebrate the same event. Harry Carter’s book is a detailed history of OUP from 1478 to 1780, and it includes as an appendix a list of extant Oxford books published between 1690 and 1780, excluding Bibles, Testaments, and Books of Common Prayer which would be “too numerous to mention.” Peter Sutcliffe’s book skips through the early years to concentrate on the period from 1860 to now. His pages are too crowded with print to be as beautiful as Barker’s or Carter’s, and I spotted a misplaced quotation mark as evidence, presumably, of the informality mentioned in his subtitle, but I find no other fault in a notably inexpensive and lively book.

Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Sutcliffe tells the story of the Press mainly through the people who managed its policy and saw that the books were published: his leading characters are Charles Cannan, Lyttelton Gell, Henry Frowde, Alexander Macmillan, Humphrey Milford, Bartholomew Price, Kenneth Sisam, but he has rich material also on Jowett, Murray, Fowler, and many other men associated with the Press. Carter’s men include Rood, Scolar, Barnes, Archbishop Laud, Bishop Fell, and Sir William Blackstone, but he takes enough time and space to give fascinating accounts…

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