The subtitle of The Enlightenment and the Book should have been Publishers in Eighteenth-Century etc. and their Scottish Authors. The authors are discussed only in so far as they relate to the publishers, who are the main subject of the book. As I say, I found it mildly interesting, since it dealt with the world of books, although from an unusual perspective; just as a baseball fan might find mildly interesting a book about the builders of baseball stadiums.
Here are three passages, chosen completely at random (I promise) to give you the tenor of Seth’s writing.
More generally, England produced large numbers of connoisseurs and dilettantes, antiquarians and virtuosi, performers and collectors; it can plausibly be argued that they gave eighteenth-century English culture its distinctive character; and that the British Museum, which opened its doors to the public in January 1759, constituted the closest thing to an institutional embodiment of enlightened learning in London. As authors of Enlightenment books, however, the Scots far surpassed their southern neighbors.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was an unlikely best seller that emerged from a profit-sharing publication arrangement. Like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first edition was a big book of two quarto volumes, expensive at £1.16s. in boards or £2.2s. bound. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Strahan and Cadell published it on the basis of shared costs and shared profits. The publishers and their mentor, Andrew Millar, had been disappointed by a similar undertaking a decade earlier, when they purchased the copyright to Sir James Steuart’s Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy for £500 in advance of publication. In Smith’s case, the results were very different.
The early auctions, in the spring of 1768, were accompanied by printed catalogues showing the full retail price of each book. The rules stipulated that the bidding would begin at half the retail price and that no sale could be made without at least three bidders. In addition, anyone purchasing six shillings’ worth of books “shall receive, gratis, a Paper Cutter and Folder worth One Shilling.” The stock at these auctions consisted entirely of new books, which Bell presumably acquired at low prices from other booksellers who could not sell them.
You see? Soothing and mildly interesting. (Your mild interest probably was piqued enough to be glad to learn that Robert Bell’s auctions took place in Philadelphia.) Thanks to a photograph showing the relative sizes of different editions of a book of Hume’s essays, I now have a clear idea of the physical difference between a folio, a quarto, an octavo and a duodecimo edition. (The Hume book was not published in folio, but the photo shows another work in that size, for comparison.)
Seth especially is to be commended for his easy-going readability since his overall view about book publishing draws from Foucault and the Annales school of history (Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, et. al.) who, like most 20th century French intellectuals, tend to incarnate the complexity of their ideas in a corresponding complexity of their prose.
Even Seth’s presentation of this deconstructionist-sounding view of books is clear and illuminating:
It is a truism among historians of books, though often a surprise to historians of ideas, that “authors do not write books: they write texts that become written objects.” Much of the action in this book has occurred within what Roger Chartier has called “the space between text and object” – the space, as I define it, between the realms of authors who write texts and of publishers who are chiefly responsible for making those texts into books and marketing them as commodities. Although this space “has too often been forgotten," Chartier adds, it is “precisely the space in which meaning is constructed.” [The first quotation is from Chartier as well.]