The Nature of the Book Essay - Critical Essays

Adrian Johns

The Nature of the Book

The advent of printing around 1450 A.D. brought a major transformation in communications technology, but historians have not fully explored how these changes occurred. In THE NATURE OF THE BOOK: PRINT AND KNOWLEDGE IN THE MAKING, Adrian Johns examines how characteristics of fixity and credibility that are ascribed to printing were developed in London between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

He uses “fine-grained social history” to examine the London book trade that encompassed authors, printers, booksellers, and readers. He begins with a detailed study of these interlinking “domains” to show how books were produced and sold, and he investigates how the Stationers’ Company operated.

Piracy constantly threatened the credibility of contents in printed materials. Most of this book explains strategies that were devised to invest credibility in printed works. The Stationers’ Company maintained a register of authorized rights to hold “copy.” Parliamentary acts tried to enforce licensing. Royal privileges were granted to individuals to produce books.

Experimental science which depended on accuracy of data became an important force for developing mechanisms to insure fixity and credibility in printing. The Royal Society supported a system of registration of works, published its own transactions, and promoted the protection of authorship.

Although THE NATURE OF THE BOOK focuses on a specific location and time period, its conclusions have broader significance. Johns demonstrates that primary features of printing such as fixity and credibility are not inherent in the medium but are products of the interaction of social and cultural forces with printing technology.

Sources for Further Study

Biblio. December, 1998, p. 67.

Booklist. XCV, October 15, 1998, p. 382.

The Christian Science Monitor. November 12, 1998, p. B5.

Insight on the News. XIV, November 30, 1998, p. 36.