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The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making [Paperback]

Adrian Johns
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

15 May 2000
In The Nature of the Book, a tour de force of cultural history, Adrian Johns constructs an entirely original and vivid picture of print culture and its many arenas—commercial, intellectual, political, and individual.

"A compelling exposition of how authors, printers, booksellers and readers competed for power over the printed page. . . . The richness of Mr. Johns's book lies in the splendid detail he has collected to describe the world of books in the first two centuries after the printing press arrived in England."—Alberto Manguel, Washington Times

"[A] mammoth and stimulating account of the place of print in the history of knowledge. . . . Johns has written a tremendously learned primer."—D. Graham Burnett, New Republic

"A detailed, engrossing, and genuinely eye-opening account of the formative stages of the print culture. . . . This is scholarship at its best."—Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor

"The most lucid and persuasive account of the new kind of knowledge produced by print. . . . A work to rank alongside McLuhan."—John Sutherland, The Independent

"Entertainingly written. . . . The most comprehensive account available . . . well documented and engaging."—Ian Maclean, Times Literary Supplement

Frequently Bought Together

The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making + The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450-1800 (Verso World History) + The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Canto Classics)
Price For All Three: 51.26

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Product details

  • Paperback: 754 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (15 May 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226401227
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226401225
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 336,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

Weighing in at 750-plus pages, Adrian Johns's sturdy tome is several books in one. At one level, it is a close study of print culture in early modern England, a time of civil war in which social and civic relations were being remade from the mores of feudal monarchy to a politics approximating modern democracy. In this transformation, the printing press was an essential vehicle for empowering the common people, and control over the publishing industry was contested among several parties--the government, authors, booksellers, the printers themselves. At another level, Johns's book is a study of the role of printing in the formation of scientific knowledge, a means whereby scientific discoveries could be widely circulated and codified. At another, it is a contribution to the sociology of communication, concentrating on changes in English society thanks to the press, through which a literate but remarkably isolated people who, an 18th-century writer observed, knew no more of the city and countryside outside their immediate neighbourhood than they did of France or Russia, could become aware of the larger world--often over the objections of power-makers like Sir Francis Bacon, who urged that the people not be given access to information that did not immediately concern them.

Johns's book is dense with facts and quotations from the literature, but his prose is lightened by keen observation and telling anecdotes. (In one, Benjamin Franklin tried to make his way across Europe as a journeyman printer but grew so disgusted at the copious drinking of his fellow tradesmen that he switched careers, an accident that would change the course of history.) The Nature of the Book will be especially useful to those tracking the communications revolution of the late 20th century, in which new technologies are once again changing power relations and supplanting old media. --Gregory McNamee, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This rich study asks the reader to revisit every assumption s/he brings to the act of reading a book. Provides a sound history of the process of book publishing, revealing what a wonder it is that books actually manage to be published. A wonderful account of the history of intellectual property, copyright, authors' claims, and the rise of print culture in Europe (particularly England) during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. All in all, an enlightening read.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars mistitled 21 Mar 2002
By Andrea Boykowycz - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Adrian Johns tells us much less about the nature of the book than about the origins of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, the physical conditions in which books were printed and distributed, and the architecture of the Royal Stationers Hall. These subjects are lovingly treated with, as another reviewer noted, Johns's prolix style -- not only could the book have shaved a third of its length were the language pared down even slightly, but there could easily have been 3 very interesting books made of this one, and none of them would have borne the title 'The Nature of the Book.'
Johns's ostensible purpose in tying all these themes together is to attack Elizabeth Eisenstein's theory that fixity is an inherent effect of the advent of print culture; however his argument isn't supported by the evidence he so ponderously provides. He does not in fact compare print culture with manuscript culture, as an earlier reviewer stated; and without this comparison it's hard to say Eisenstein's theory suffers any damage as a result of Johns's book. His point is merely that fixity (of authorship, edition, form) was a problem for authors and printers in seventeenth century London, one that the Royal Society and the Company of Stationers both worked to solve; if anything, this rather supports Eisenstein's theory, since her point is that prior to the printing press the very notion of 'fixity' was impossible to imagine, nevermind realize.
Despite the fact that the book is mistitled and its unifying argument is not especially choate, it does contain a wealth of interesting information about the gritty physicality of printing in seventeenth century London, and its later chapters are excellent intellectual/scientific history. I only wish the editors at the University of Chicago Press, whom Johns praises so highly in his acknowledgements, had been a bit tougher with the manuscript.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointing 7 Jan 2001
By S. Matthews - Published on
I bought this in the expectation of something a bit like Haskell's 'History and its Images': an examination of the ways that people have come to terms with books and other printed materials in the past, and the ways that it differs from what we do today. And I believe that that is also what Johns wanted to write, and maybe even believes he has written. Unfortunately, he hasn't: early modern readers never really get a look in, and in spite of (or even because of?) more than 600 pages of main text, he fails ever to get to the point. In essence, this is not really a book, so much as large pile of stuff - it is as if, having done all his research, he could not bear to throw anything away.
Thus, for instance, we get to learn a great deal about the finer social points of the printers/publishers guild in London, even about who should pay for dinner. But this information is on a scale, and left in a state, where it is more interesting to someone researching a novel set in a printing workshop in England in the middle of the seventeen century, than to someone wondering what, in 1650, was going through the head of someone settling down with a newly acquired book.
Similarly, we learn a great about the publishing arrangements and politics of the Royal Society, and in particular about the 'Philosophical Transactions', as a lead up to a description of the bust-up between Christiaan Huygens and Robert Hooke over the invention of the spring escapement watch movement (David Landes' account, in 'Revolution in Time', which I would have thought definitive, and fairly well known - it is certainly more concise, and much clearer about the technical issues of who may or may not have been in the right, and to what extent - is not cited in the bibliography). But again this chapter leads nowhere, except to a conclusion about how the virtues of the Royal Society and the Philosophical Transactions, and the model of science they embodied, were not 'obvious' to contemporaries. This would be an interesting point to argue (it is certainly one with which I would be fascinated to engage). It might well be possible to build a case that a society that included Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren and many similar others among its members, corresponded regularly with the most learned men in the rest of Europe, and published a journal where articles were admitted for publication only after review by members, had no obvious virtues as a clearing house for scientific information in comparision to, e.g., a journal that solicited materials to be dropped of at a specified coffee house, but I'm afraid Johns is going to have to work a bit harder if I am to accept such a claim seriously as an argument rather than as wishful thinking. (He even admits that all competitors to the Philosophical Transactions took it as a model, and also that most of them failed completely and almost immediately, though he does not discuss in satisfactory detail why).
This book does, however, convince me that there is a fascinating book to be written on the relationship between readers and texts in early modern Europe, a book that follows up properly on a sentence that tantalized me in the introduction: 'It seems that nobody in 1660's Europe built an air-pump sucessfully by relying solely on Boyle's textual description of the engine. Some we know, tried; all, we think, failed.' There is also the book that is actually to be found at the core of this one: a monograph on the the issues an author in early modern Europe had to deal with in getting a book published, and securing credit for his ideas. Such a monograph would be the result of throwing away the stuff about, for instance, who paid for dinner at Stationers Hall, and tightening up the text and the supporting materials (Johns - who, in passing, accuses technical philosophers of 'canting speech' - has a pompously prolix style: rewritten, the text could easily, among other things, lose a quarter of its length).
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why do we trust books? 9 Oct 2001
By Mark Howells - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We uncritically accept that a book which says it has been written by so-and-so an author is, in fact, an accurate representation of that particular author's ideas. We believe that a book claiming to be published by such-and-such a publisher on this-or-that date has, in truth, come from that claimed publisher on that given date.
Most historians of the printed word have considered our acceptance of these claims as a pre-destined result of the factory-like uniformity of print. A printed page can be exactly reproduced over and over again through printing, and this consistency lead the reading public to trust the claimed provenance of a printed materials in comparison to manuscripts.
Adrian Johns' "Nature of the Book" disputes the inevitability of a trusted print culture. It did not arise as a mechanistic result of the printing process. Rather, Johns' argues that it was the individual and collective efforts of printers, booksellers, authors, and others who successes and failures prepared Western society to accept a print culture based on propriety and trust.
Focusing on the Stationers' Guild of London in the mid-to-late 1600s and the British Royal Society of the early-to-mid 1700s, Johns highlights critical conflicts, collusions, competitions, cooperations, and crises which directly contributed to the trusted print culture we share today. Johns is an historian of science and he uses the development of experimental philosophy as championed by the Royal Society as a prime example of how diverse interest groups struggled with the dilemma of trusting books the printed word.
In nine carefully focused chapters covering over 600 pages, the author builds his case that there was nothing inevitable about how our print culture evolved. The corollaries to our modern struggles over the veracity of electronic media are obvious. Western society has been in this position before and Johns does a wonderful job of telling the tale. If history is going to repeat itself, it will ultimately be the meatware rather than the hardware which defines the trustworthiness of our electronic information culture.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Different 24 Jan 2001
By Dan Knauss - Published on
I used this book in a graduate seminar on early modern printed books at the Newberry Library. It's worth delving into if you are seriously interested in the history of the book, science, and copyright in early modern England through the eyes of people involved in different parts of the new world of print.

Overturning easy targets Elizabeth Eisenstein (rather unfairly) and Marshall McLuhan (more justly), Johns argues that the emergence of print technology did not stabilize and thus give authority to texts -- on the contrary, print culture could be even messier than manuscript culture. Authority and fixity were attributes and values that had to be constructed and ascribed to printed texts over a substantial period of time.

This very thick, massively researched book reads like it is the product of a gang of Umberto Ecos or encyclopedic Stephen Greenblatts. Avoiding a grand narrative of 17th century English print culture, Johns describes famous and marginal characters as well as their physical milieu with incredible detail. If the stories don't fascinate you, you will at least get a far more concrete grasp of the early modern world than one normally receives does from academic books.

On the other hand, the length of the book can become tedious and its overall argument elusive. Avoiding a grand, teleological narrative is one thing; losing sight of your thesis is another. But if you don't mind working with this book in interpreting a ton of data and fascinating events, you will find it a rewarding read.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars tough going, good going 20 Sep 1998
By A Customer - Published on
The prose here is needlessly dense, almost choked with grad school patois in parts, but the subject matter is so redeemingly compelling - I'm surprised there aren't more books that stare backwards to study themselves, their own history, and this is ultimately a good example of what can be done. Note to those readers determined enough to take this tome on: some chapters are MUCH better than others, and none of them need to be read in linear order, so you needn't feel so guilty about skipping around. If the subject matter interests you and you can put up with a certain amount of grad school bloat, you should find something called "Lost in a Book" - all about the psychological mechanisms of reading for pleasure.
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