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Book Review: Books as History by David Pearson. Obsolescence Guaranteed?

Fine Books & Collections

Why do books matter? David Pearson sets forth to tell us in Books as History (revised edition), a friendly, colourful, oversized paperback filled with illustrations and observations detailing the value of the ‘book as object.’

Books as we understand them may well cease to be read, says Pearson. In order to preserve them, we must, he says, recognize that there are reasons, other than content, to have and hold them. Books are interesting as artefacts, as objects with important individual histories and design characteristics that have value beyond simply that which their texts convey. The ways in which books are made, owned, written in, mutilated and bound, all add to a documentary heritage that is central to the accurate recording of human civilisation. The book as object is part not only of the history of communication, but also of art and design.

A book can be altered, beautified or cherished in ways that produce unique objects worth preserving. Each generation leaves its marks: inscriptions, annotations, bookplates, new bindings, armorial stamps, defacements. Readers also often add useful details omitted in the texts. As such, printed books have their own histories which become part of our wider historical heritage and evidence base. Pearson argues that e-books and tablets simply won’t offer these unique, telling attributes.

The letterpress printing and binding processes produce no end of slight variance between copies. Today’s manufacturing processes allow for little or no variation.

If their rationale is solely textual then obsolescence seems, says Pearson, guaranteed. We must therefore, he says, recognize that books are important for more than just their content, otherwise we risk making bad decisions about what should and shouldn’t be preserved for posterity. 

Typography, layout, physical format and everything surrounding the words themselves all contribute to the framework within which meaning is constructed. In short, the material form in which texts are transmitted affects their meaning. You can tell how a book was valued by who owned it and how it was treated or bound.  Copy-specific evidence is increasingly used to evaluate how books were received by successive generations. Physical presentation preconditions reader reception. So, appearance in an obscure versus highly respected journal will influence how readily readers accept certain claims or hypotheses. Many of the new reading technologies don’t render this kind of evidence.

Books represent a highly functional piece of design that must look and feel good in order to sell. The typeface must be legible and the layout pleasing; it must open easily, and handle comfortably.

Dust Jackets and bindings speak to the spirit of the times as effectively as any other contemporary artefact. Jackets can also provide intriguing snapshots of changing cultural values. Plus they’re cheap as historical artefacts go, compared to clocks, say, or paintings.


It seems a bit ironic that the primary justification for valuing a book is what the reader may or may not have done to it, but, then again, isn’t this in fact exactly the point of a book? To provide a forum for the reader to interact with the writer, a place to exchange ideas, where both can learn?

Despite the fact that a stronger case than the one outlined by Pearson can be made for e-books (what they will be capable of, how they will be able to record unique responses), and that the importance of marginalia is overstated (surely  a notebook is a more efficient, capacious recorder of reader response and, as such, more valuable), Books as History ‘highlights an important aspect of the life of books in the context of the ongoing debate about their future,’ and as such, is well worth reading.

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One Response to “Book Review: Books as History by David Pearson. Obsolescence Guaranteed?”

  1. Elaine Grainger Says:

    I had booked a talk through the Art Fund to hear Dr. Pearson talk about ‘Books as History’ at the Wallace Collection on 13th January. Unfortunately I have to go to a funeral that day but wondered if a transcript of the talk was available?
    Thank you.
    Elaine Grainger

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