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Rembrandt van Rijn's Old Woman Reading, 1631
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt van Rijn: Old Woman Reading, 1631

We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as stars in the sky. Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.

The president customarily assumes power by swearing the oath of office on a book. Ladies have hollowed out books to hide their jewelry. Books are presented as prizes, carried as companions into battle, kept at bedsides to induce sleep, exchanged as gifts to cement friendship. A German friend gave me his grandfather’s battered copy of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hymnen an die Ideale der Menschheit, inscribed “Nord-Frankreich 1916” on its title page. A German soldier reading hymns to the ideals of humanity in a trench in World War I: the gift has meaning beyond the words of the text.

Since World War II, a new discipline has coalesced around the attempt to understand the power of books. Its emergence can be dated to the publication in 1958 of L’apparition du livre (The Coming of the Book) by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, a work that challenged readers to think of early printed books in unfamiliar ways—as objects of artisanal labor, items of commercial exchange, catalysts of economic development, and engines of political conflict. To be sure, historians and literary scholars had explored those topics for generations. But Febvre and Martin argued that they should be brought together in an effort to understand the entire ecology of the world of print. Soon afterward, the French began to describe this field of study as “l’histoire du livre,” a term translated into English, somewhat awkwardly, as “history of the book,” “history of books,” or “book history.”

Now, six decades later, the discipline has expanded all over the world and into many neighboring fields. In England it intersected with a tradition of descriptive bibliography, which developed around the attempt to reconstruct the original texts of Shakespeare by analyzing the earliest printed versions of his plays. In Germany it merged with scholarship on the book trade as measured by catalogs from the fairs of Frankfurt and Leipzig going back to the sixteenth century. In the US, it built on studies of colonial printing and expanded to include varieties of popular culture up to the present: Benjamin Franklin stares across the centuries at Rupert Murdoch.

We now have multivolume, collective histories of the book in France, Britain, the US, Canada, and Australia. We have book-history journals, associations, conferences, courses of study, monograph series, research centers, glossaries, companions, and encyclopedias. The history of books goes back long before printing. It figures prominently in scholarship on antiquity and the Middle Ages,…

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