English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Sep., 2003), pp. 492-495. Copyright (c) MIT Press 2003. Used by permission.


Perhaps the best place to begin a review of this excellent new book is where the editors themselves begin in their preface, by defining what the book is not. Namely, it is not "a reader that merely reprint[s] scholarly essays" on the history of the book (that niche has recently been filled by The Book History Reader [2002] from Routledge), nor is it "a definitive history of the book and print culture in North America" (Cambridge University Press and the American Antiquarian Society aim to fill that niche with the multi-volume History of the Book in America, currently in progress). Rather, Perspectives on American Book History is a classroom text that gathers together "'artifacts,' primary texts and images that encourage discussion and interpretation, as well as ... short commentary essays that model ways in which those artifacts can be used." While the overall arc of the book is chronological, each chapter presents materials under a thematic rubric that spans decades or even a century, with chronological overlap between chapters ("The Book Trade Transformed," "Antebellum Reading Prescribed and Described," and "Publishing an Emergent 'American' Literature," for instance, cross and recross the mid-nineteenth century). A different scholar is responsible for each chapter. Each chapter begins with a brief opening statement of about two paragraphs, which is followed by documents or excerpts from documents (prefaced only very briefly and presented without footnotes), an interpretive essay of several pages that refers back to some of the documents, and a bibli- ography and suggestions for further reading.