A timely if belated project, Lydia Wevers

The history of the book in New Zealand conference

Auckland University, 29 August 1 September

New Zealand is rather belatedly picking up the history of the book as a major research area; most western countries are well into a history of the book and some ‑ notably France ‑ are already published. In Britain a seven-volume history is under way and the first volumes are due to appear next year, in the United States the National Endowment for the Humanities has given a grant to the American Antiquarian Society to produce a multi‑volume history and histories of the book are on track in Canada and Australia. In New Zealand the history of print culture project was established at the end of last year.

Why is there such a wave of interest in the history of the book? A simple answer is the growth of electronic media. There’s a lot of glib talk around about the death of the book, an idea that David McKitterick, Wren Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge and one of the three general editors of the British History of the Book, dismisses with scorn. McKitterick was in New Zealand as keynote speaker for the Auckland conference and has also been talking about it in Wellington and Dunedin. He sees the “death of the book” as a gimmicky phrase with little real meaning ‑ will CD‑ROM really replace the tattered paperback you take to bed when you’re tired? What will you read in planes and trains? What will happen to the world’s already vast book stock? It won’t simply disappear because some things are done more easily on PCs.

But, and this is the but that signals the point, the book as an object and as the end‑result of production is clearly in a transitional state and at the very least locked in a necessary relation with electronics. The vast and ancient culture based on print is in a time of significant change. Moreover the shift from print to electronics has coincided more generally with a shift in the humanities and it is the galvanising effect of this intellectual shift which provides a more complex answer to questions about the history of the book and has resulted in an international fan of collaborative projects on book history.

Bibliography, or the study of the production of books, has traditionally been the field of historians of printing, but in the 1950s and 1960s social historians began to ask questions about how and why books were produced and received. In 1952 H‑J Martin published an article in the French journal Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations which saw the field of book history as terra incognita and opened it as a field of study for economic and social historians who regarded books and printed materials generally as windows into the social lives and mentalities of ordinary people. The consequence of the kind of book history research opened up by Martin and his colleague Lucien Febvre in their L’Apparition du Livre (1958) has been a flood of work by both literary critics and historians on textual and cultural production, involving an often controversial reframing of both culture and text.

I R Willison, who is one of the general editors of the British History of the Book, has written persuasively that the history of the book has converged with cultural theory as a response to what has been called the crisis of the humanities, which he defined as a “compulsive and radical enlargement of the received definition of culture”. Willison sees the History of the book as “a key province in the empire de la critique“. Book history is part of New historicism, the “rehistoricising of literary studies” as it has been called, and the role of texts and the culture they carry has a crucial significance in postcolonial studies.

One of the hottest areas of book history is the history of reading and readership ‑ who reads what, why, how and where. Another associated area is the history of libraries, which has proved to be such a big topic in Britain it will have its own three‑volume history. At the Auckland conference Keith Maslen from Dunedin gave a paper about the atheneums and mechanics institutes founded in Otago and Southland during the nineteenth century, focussing on the atheneum at Naseby whose holdings and borrowing patterns provide a map of the cultural activity of the area. Institutions in Otago and Southland had to be “strictly public in every sense” to get subsidies and could have no “special views” on religious or social topics. You only have to think of Janet Frame’s autobiography (as everyone did) to be aware of the importance of atheneums to our collective cultural life. Library collections arrived on the first ships and, as Jim Traue’s paper argued, because New Zealand for most of its history has been a net importer of books and periodicals, libraries have played a greater part in the history of the book in this country than local publishers.

It became very clear over the course of the Auckland conference that the history of print culture in New Zealand, while sharing many characteristics with other colonial and postcolonial histories, particularly Australia’s, is also distinctive. The role of newspapers in establishing a local literary culture, for example, became an important feature. Several papers discussed the role of editors in promoting literary publication, especially in the 1930s, suggesting that the publication of books has not been the most important aspect of our development of a national literature.

Brian Opie, convenor of the New Zealand history of print culture project, said the conference confirmed for him that in New Zealand we should focus on a history of print culture in its widest sense rather than a history of the book, with implied priority given to a particular product of printing. Several papers, including Roderick Cave’s on the colonial book trade, stressed the importance of the international book trade to national histories of the book and called for a cross‑nation study of particular features of colonial history such as the importance and effect of mission printing. David McKitterick commented that the most useful feature of the conference for him was to make him realise how different a view of the history of the book emerges from New Zealand and Australia than from Britain and it is precisely these differences which will locate the history of print culture in postcolonial debate and contribute to social and textual history.

Printing in Maori, the subject of a trio of papers by Jane McRae, Danny Keenan and Peter Lineham, is particularly topical because it is the visible effect of culture clash, the meeting between a text‑based culture and an oral one. A considerable amount of work has already been done on questions of orality and literacy surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi and the relationship of the oral tradition to the book is still a contested one ‑ these questions perhaps more than any other throw into relief the history of the book as a way of reframing political and cultural history.

The authenticity and authority of language and knowledge was, for example, raised in Peter Lineham’s paper about the reception by Maori of different editions of the Maori Bible. The first translation, Colenso’s of 1837, was quickly seen to be inadequate by its translators, so in 1886 a new edition was brought out revised by Robert Maunsell who worked from Greek and Hebrew to produce what he called “the classical edition” ‑ from the classics to “classical” Maori. This edition met with wholesale rejection. Maunsell said he was constantly asked for the old edition and the changes between editions seemed only to perplex Maori readers. Evidence of usage of the Bible shows it to have been committed to memory by many Maori, who thus reconverted the text to an oral tradition and its status as a sacred text conferred an authenticity to the Colenso version. The story of the Maori Bible raises both the politics and the philosophy of translation as well as questions about use of written texts in a traditionally oral culture and the transfer of oral consensus to written form‑questions that are still current.

The scope of the history of the book conference sketched out the very wide range of the print culture ‑ issues of race, gender, economics, marketing and the role of the book as a colonising agent all surfaced as well as the more traditional topic areas for book historians of conservation, collection, typography, bookbinding and the book arts.

The most radical interpretations of the book as both text and object emerged in a session on book artists in which Elizabeth Steiner, Lesley Kaiser and Gail Haffern talked about their work using the book or the idea of the book to reinvent art. Lesley Kaiser and John Barnett have taken the book from form to form ‑ from a pop‑up book based on Victorian dirty postcards (sold 100,000 copies) to a “virtual book” based on quantum physics, from poster to sticker to neon sign, from the gallery to the supermarket and into politics and deconstruction. I particularly liked their numbered edition mailout of a pamphlet on Eileen Stitchbury, an Auckland artist who left her work to the Auckland City Art Gallery which sold it all and kept the profits. Gail Haffern’s work constantly reinvents the book as an object and conceptually, as in her book which resembles a labyrinth, a whole mass of texts reaching into and over the page; or her book in response to Foucault, which is a “sequence of spaces” enclosing the reader.

One of the subtler effects of the conference was its simultaneous display of the authority of the printed word with the deconstruction of the book as an object. In both traditional and innovative ways one was made constantly aware of the book’s material characteristics and volatility while its conceptual authority was exemplified.

David Zwartz’s paper on the New Zealand Official Yearbook pointed to the kind of record provided by the Yearbook of changing attitudes to official information and to the role of the Government Printer in the textual history of New Zealand. In reading the Yearbook also as an artefact whose construction and presentation can be read semiotically, a connection was made with a later paper by Alan Loney which discussed fine printing and claimed no literary critic takes the trouble to read the semiology of the way a text is presented. The physical existence of the book, “itself … an expressive means”, as D F McKenzie has said, is the traditional ground of bibliographers but the many ways in which the book as object, artefact and commodity were discussed in the course of the conference suggested the sheer extensiveness of the history of the book as a field for multidisciplinary research.

McKenzie, formerly of Victoria University and now Professor of Bibliography at Oxford, is the other general editor of the British History of the Book and responsible for kick‑starting the New Zealand history of print culture project. It is to be hoped the project will attract funding of some kind as one thing made absolutely clear by the Auckland conference is that it is too large and important a part of our cultural history to be done piecemeal in the spare time of academics with no spare time. The Auckland conference made a start on the vast bulk of material our textual and colonial history provides and revealed as much as anything how much research has yet to be done. The New Zealand history of print culture is a project whose time, nationally and internationally, has come.

Lydia Wevers is currently working on a book.

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