Book Parts, edited by Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth

In 1723 the London bookseller Thomas Graves published a 12-page pamphlet entitled The First of April. Written in praise of the author of a recent poem named Ridotto, or Downfal of Masquerades, it comprises a title page, a six-page dedicatory epistle, and The First of April itself, a three-page poem. There is an an attractive woodcut on the poem’s first page; there is an epigraph from Horace; the poem itself is footnoted. All the elements one would expect to see are in place.

But there is no poem. The footnotes annotate blank space, the asterisks they refer to float free on the page.

This is, of course, the joke: there is nothing good to be said about the author of Ridotto. But there are jokes within the joke, too: one of the notes helpfully explains the particular patch of emptiness it marks as, ‘An Elleipsis, or leaving something to be understood by the Reader’. Yet for all that there is no actual poem within the pamphlet’s pages, its absence doesn’t prevent us discussing its meanings because so much meaning is derived from the page and book elements which frame it.*

In this way, The First of April perfectly embodies the argument of Book Parts, which comprises 22 brief chapters, all by academics or librarians, on the various aspects of a book – from introductions through to end pages by way of epigraphs, errata, indexes and so on – which accompany what we customarily consider a book’s real contents. None of these 22 chapters directly discusses the core text itself. (I appreciate this omission may strike members of the Society of Authors, more than most readers, as particularly dismaying.)** Broadly, these accompanying elements fall into three not necessarily exclusive categories: those which comment on the text, those which enable us to navigate our way through the text, and those whose purpose is adornment or illustration.

Some may wonder what the point of this is, echoing the sentiments of Thomas Gray, who, when asked to annotate some of his poems, grumpily responded, ‘Whatever wants to be explained, don’t deserve to be’. But Book Parts is a serious book intended as a significant contribution to the growing academic discipline of book history. It is rarely less than fascinating and sometimes hugely entertaining.

The stand-out chapter in this regard is Helen Smith’s on acknowledgements and dedications, which is both witty itself and liberally salted with the wit of others. I particularly liked Michael Moorcock’s dedication of his 1981 book The Steel Tsar ‘To my creditors, who remain a permanent source of inspiration’, although EE Cummings’ dedication of his 1935 collection No Thanks to the fourteen named publishers who turned it down – whom he lists one below the other in the shape of a funeral urn – is also impressive.

Elsewhere we see how no sooner does a new convention develop than someone finds a way to inject argument or humour – or both – into it. The index to Charles Boyle’s 1698 work Dr Bentley’s Dissertations – itself a polemic against the philologist Richard Bentley – extends its assault with entries under Bentley for ‘egregious dulness’, ‘pedantry’ and ‘familiar acquaintance with books he never saw’. Among the fictional errata to John Taylor’s 1622 Sir Gregory Nonsence his newes from no place is the emendation ‘In the 90. page, 27. line, for friend read rare’.

Most chapters – playful or otherwise – explore the history of their subject, sometimes reaching back into the far pre-history of the codex: footnotes have their roots in the Talmud, for example, and some of the earliest known chapter heads are from fragmentary Roman legal statutes dated to the second-century BC. A few bring things into the modern world with nods to the internet and e-readers: in her chapter on running titles Claire M. L. Bourne notes that Kindles et al are a 21st-century version of compilatio – the medieval practice of binding together multiple manuscript works in large single volumes. But the primary focus is on the centuries after the invention of print.

These book elements that we take so much for granted hold latent within them older forms and uses. I had never thought before what the author’s preface, with its conventional sign off giving the place and date of its writing, owes to the historic address to the reader. Nor had I stopped to consider how much we unthinkingly owe to the great monastic houses of medieval Europe and in particular those of the new Franciscan and Dominican preaching orders, whose dedication to teaching drove them to develop or formalise a whole range of navigational features early in the thirteenth century – including running heads, chapter heads and marked paragraphs. Around 1200, another teacher, the English cleric Stephen Langton, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was the first person to divide the books of the Bible into chapters. By 1250, the Dominican priory of St Jacques in Paris had given us the concordance and the related idea of the contextual quotation (today’s ‘snippet view’ on Google) while the Oxford Franciscan Robert Grosseteste had invented the topical or subject index.

But the evolution of navigational aids like these ultimately gave readers something they had not previously enjoyed: the ability, as Joseph A. Howley says in his chapter on the table of contents, to read a book ‘on a path of your own choosing’. It’s something that Howley, at least, is relaxed about: his chapter engagingly opens with a discussion of skipping and skimming and entertains the idea that his may be one of those chapters the reader passes over.

Not everyone has always thought such freedoms a good idea. Jonathan Swift, for one, heaped scorn on ‘the Men who pretend to understand a Book, by scouting thro’ the Index, as if a traveller should go about to describe a Palace, when he had seen nothing but the Privy’. But this flexibility is surely one of the signature strengths of the book as we know it: a book with powerful navigational tools has a range of possibilities that a simple linear, unmarked, unmediated text has not. And while it is true this is a freedom more enjoyed by readers of non-fiction, there is always the example of B. S. Johnson’s 1969 ‘novel in a box’ The Unfortunates – not mentioned here, oddly – made up of 27 unbound sections to be read in any order, with only the first and last prescribed.

If the history of the book is one of debate and argument, many of the latter appear to have been between author and publisher over who bears ultimate responsibility for mistakes. It is testament to the book’s lovely intransigence as a form that death has never stopped anyone from picking a fight or scoring points. The first book printed in English was William Caxton’s 1473 translation of Le Fèvre’s Recueil des histoires de Troyes. When it was reprinted in 1596/7 by Valentine Simmes and Thomas Creede, the publishers apologised to their readers for the poor quality of Caxton’s translation – there simply wasn’t enough time to make the changes required, they said – and promised that ‘we will haue all amended’ in the second edition. Over sixty years would pass before that promise was made good – in the seventh edition of 1663. And even then the apology remained, with minor changes, until the 18th edition in 1738. As one 17th-century pamphleteer wisely wrote: ‘Concerning Mistakes in the Press… [T]hey are not much vers’d in Books, that look for none’.

Ultimately, though, Book Parts asks us to consider the question, what is a book? Are these seemingly peripheral features core to the book or extraneous to it? I suspect different readers will come to different conclusions about where to draw the line. But for making us think about the elements of which a book is comprised, and making us reflect on their long histories – and for doing so with intelligence, learning and wit – this book is to be greatly welcomed.

It reminds us how elegant a format the book is, how economical and expressive, even before you come to read any given first sentence. The cumulative sense it gives is of the immense labours that countless men and women have taken over the centuries, of their invisible intellectual toil, to leave us these objects that we love without question – even if we are blind or indifferent to so many of their component parts.

Not everyone will agree that every element merits its own chapter; some will regret the absence of sections on bindings, say, or type, or marginalia, or the book’s many and varied formats, and so on. But if disagreeing about books is one of life’s great pleasures, I imagine every author can agree with the sentiments quoted here that John Heminges and Henry Condell, publishers of Shakespeare’s First Folio, addressed to its first readers as they casually leafed through it in a shop: ‘your priuiledges wee know: to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first’.

* Whitney Trettien writes about The First of April in her essay on Titles Pages, but she had previously written about it on her blog here, to which Sarah Werner responded at length here. Both make for fascinating reading, I think.

** This review first appeared in the winter 2019 issue The Author, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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