A fine compression, Alan Loney

Book & Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa
Eds Penny Griffith, Ross Harvey and Keith Maslen, with the assistance of Ross Somerville
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 331 3

The publication of broad surveys is a popular pastime in our general intellectual culture and its usual rationale is that we are a small population that cannot publish too many specialist books and stay economically viable. We survey the year’s fiction or poetry or a dozen books on this or that subject or certain kinds of publication in general. We love overviews and publish anthologies to bring something of our culture’s variety to the notice of as many people as possible. The pleasure and the danger of this is the determining and too-often defining power of its selection. Its strength is the availability of information; its weakness is the near invisibility of what is left out. When these overviews are not followed up by specialist studies or critiques, arguments might fly about what is included and what is not but the overviews tend to remain relatively untouched, to become entrenched and to stay relatively undisturbed by other critical readings.

Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa is not the usual sort of overview in the sense I have described. It not only generously contains a splendid overview of its subject, but also has as one of its primary purposes the opening up of specialist fields for future work — and therefore of future readings of its own selections and modes of selection, as well as the ways in which the Guide itself thinks about that selection. The Guide has shrewdly and properly set itself up for change.

In their introduction the editors sketch the background: “In the 1980s and early 1990s national projects for the history of print culture or the history of the book — the terms are more or less interchangeable — have been set up in a dozen countries overseas, including Great Britain, the United States and in most countries of western Europe. Closer to home, the History of the Book in Australia project (HOBA) has recently instituted a concerted programme of research, encouraged by the holding of conferences, workshops and the like. Plans are well advanced for a three-volume History of the Book in Australia to be published at the beginning of the new millenium”.

For the present volume, the editors write: “In early 1996, while the editors … were planning a large and long-term project on the overseas pattern, Don McKenzie urged the early publication of a necessarily more modest work. The suggestion that this be a guide was made by Rachel Salmond. The editors readily agreed.” Accepting the notion of the Guide makes excellent sense. The editors acknowledge that “a major history is some years away. Such a work of synthesis must be based on a sufficient foundation of systematic research and this foundation has yet to be laid.” While the steering committee for the New Zealand project has since 1993 wrestled with the sheer scope and definition of a local endeavour, this Guide signals both the work already done and the size of the opportunity. It serves as a fine introduction to the field for both general and specialist reader and for the local project itself.

As guides are acts of compression, the task of preparing this one is as impressive for its scope as for its conciseness. Over “some 15 months” 45 authors wrote and researched for three editors and one assistant. There are six chapters: (1) “Transitions”, by Jane MacRae (except for a short section on New Zealand English) deals with the passage from oralcy to literacy in Maori and the history of printed Maori. (2) “Printing and Production”, by K A Coleridge and John Ross with a short section on private presses. (3) “Publishing”, by Ross Somerville plus 13 other authors including Coleridge and editor Ross Harvey. (4) “Distribution”, by Alan Preston, Brian McKeon and Ross. (5) “Readers and Reading”, mainly by Lydia Wevers, with sections by four others. (6) “Print Culture of Other Languages”, with short sections by 20 writers, including editor Penny Griffith. This last chapter includes printing in Pacific island languages (Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, Western Samoan) and Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, French, Gaelic (Scots), German, Greek (ancient), Latin, Polish and Scandinavian.

Authors’ names, present on the contents pages, are absent beside the papers they have contributed. If this is done to efface individual authorship under the guise of an “objective” guide it is to my mind an unhappy decision in a book which proposes disclosure of the field, an opening to what has happened, who did it and when. “Literary theorists” are evoked in the introduction but not invoked in the rest of the Guide. In MacRae’s exemplary chapter there is an uncharacteristic timidity: “Some scholars of oral traditions suggest that the way in which narratives are printed may alter how they are understood.” Yet poets and literary critics have throughout this century insisted upon this point and more recent textual critics have spent much time elaborating on it by means of historical examples. Work by D F McKenzie, Jerome McGann, Lotte Hellinga and Anne Middleton could be brought to bear on this but I will instead quote from Francis Meynell, publisher and designer of the Nonesuch Press books: “… it can happen that the ‘picture’ made by a book definitely affects its contents”. It should by now be commonly taken that a text’s “presentation” is also part of its meaning, its tone on the page and its status as a document, its visual coding being evidence that lexical data is not all that we get or indeed look for from reading.

In telling the story of the transition from oralcy to literacy for Maori prior to 1850, MacRae excellently outlines the benefits and the disadvantages of printing in Maori. Then, practically all printed Maori was written by non-Maori —  Christian doctrine, language workbooks and grammars and government documents, “proclamations, public letters, acts [of Parliament], the Maori Gazette and instructions about European life”. She says: “The primary purpose of printing up to 1850 was to distribute the literature of church and state.” But when the Maori oral traditions began to be printed, it coincided with increased Maori writing and printing and issues about ownership of knowledge, its location (specific to specific iwi) and its orthography (“Ngai Tahu” or “Kai Tahu”), began to be discussed and are still. Questions about whether a double vowel or the macron should be employed to denote the Maori long vowel, for instance, continue to suggest a sort of settling down period for Maori spelling in print — just as I am not sure whether to write “standardisation” (first option over z in Chambers Dictionary) or standardization (sole option in the my 1959 Shorter Oxford).

Coleridge and Ross in their chapter on “Printing and Production” follow well the aims of the Guide, identifying sources, resources, surveys, all under the headings “technology”, “trade”, “economics” and “government regulation”, as does Noel Waite in his section on “private printing” (read, “private presses”). They move from the major fact that the whole art of printing and its technologies were and are imported manufactures, to what happened next, from William Colenso’s iron press slung between two Maori canoes to land at Paihia, to the entire printing industry with trade unions, government regulations, censorship issues, trade journals and the historical fragmentation of its processes. The private presses, however, have long been a sort of antidote to both industrialisation and this fragmentation. Waite’s crisp account shows just how much work can still be undertaken on them, as well as the difficulties inherent in their definition.

But it is impossible to do justice to this book’s range of information, even if some sections are necessarily underdone. And as much as I enjoyed the misnamed publication From Hot Type to Cold Metal on p55, reading as if it were a previously undiscovered memento mori, I am relieved to find it correctly noted, From Hot Metal to Cold Type, in the bibliography. But Ross Somerville calculates that most books published in New Zealand (in terms of total print runs) are educational books — schoolbooks and textbooks — and these are almost invisible to us because they do not inhabit the shelves most of us normally see, that is, library and bookshop shelves.

Stephen Jelicich and Andrew Trlin report that between 1899 and 1919 nine newspapers in the Croatian language were published here, along with several works of poetry and fiction (1906-86). Douglas Little locates collections of ancient Greek and Latin books in our libraries, showing how dependent these collections were on donations from classical scholars. Wevers surveys reading and literacy as a function of governments through the Department of Education; and Lagi Sipeli traces the preservation of the Niuean language in its printed material, while Griffith points to a profound importation of the Samoan language to the Tokelaus by the missionaries from the 1860s. Ross on “Book Buyers and Collectors” reminds us that “collectors have always constituted a significant minority of local book buyers” and outlines how they have nevertheless made a disproportionately significant enrichment of our cultural resources by their bequests to libraries. And all these examples are only a kind of lucky dip into this volume’s wealth of information.

How good a guide to itself is this Guide? It behaves scrupulously in its search for sources, its accounts of the already achieved and so on. But might there have been a colophon, in which we can find out what type and what paper is used and who designed the book and its cover. Running heads, too, are a problem; they refer only to the title (as if one would forget!) and to the chapter heading rather than the specific section the pages on view carry. The term “private printing” instead of “private presses” to refer to non-commercial printing is a misnomer, given that “privately printed” is a common book term denoting work that is not necessarily non-commercial and not necessarily private. But this is a category confusion in an area where categories are still being refined in our writing — in the same way that writers in the field must one day stop using “printed” when they mean “published”, in spite of British precedent and longstanding local habit.

It should be mentioned that there are difficulties in defining or even naming the field. One way of proceeding is to define the field by counting up the processes of print and look for examples to consolidate the definition. Another is to gather examples and try to come to some generalisations about them. The editors chose the former in order to produce categories for their authors. But it is the latter, exemplified in the bibliography and in the actual accounts given by the authors, that is the more exciting part of the trip the Guide takes us on. In other countries, the “book” projects mentioned earlier nearly all have “the book” as their locus of attention and there the “book” is defined very loosely to include magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, broadsheets and so on. And while the editors write that “print culture” and “book” are “more or less interchangeable”, the terms are less interchangeable the more one looks at how the field is delineated in advance by the Guide.

Obviously, “print culture” is designed to avoid too conservative a take on the subject and to be inclusive in ways that the “book loosely understood” is not. Yet it must be said that the Guide never gets beyond the “book loosely understood”. Which is perhaps to say merely that cartoons, comics, record covers, junk mail (in all its manifestations), shop signs, advertising hoardings, product packaging, architectural signage, street signs, car number plates, place names, trademarks, transport timetables and their tickets, paper money and coinage, graffiti, credit cards and many other aspects of print in contemporary life are yet to have their day in the wider print culture project. However, not getting beyond the “book loosely understood” is not a real deficiency in the Guide. Its praxis has still given us a wonderful achievement.

One of the book’s joys is the bibliography. Its 36 pages of double-column small type is a marvellous read in itself, giving a quick taste and feel of the subject in all its hard-to-pin-down variety. On any page one can have it — early botanical art, university libraries, Frank Sargeson’s memoirs, a dictionary of the Maori language of Rarotonga, the Polish community in Wellington, children’s book awards, newspapers, lithography of the future, Niuean syntax, a typographical journal, Germanic studies, a 1908 guide to early manuscripts and printed books in the Auckland free public library, the American printer, a Tokelauan dictionary — just a scattering from one of its 36 pages.

In a way, the Guide is the second book towards the major project of the book in New Zealand. First is the Interim Bibliography, published earlier this year by the Academy for the Humanities/Te Whainga Aronui (which seems to have been altered to The Humanities Society of New Zealand/Te Whainga Aronui for the Guide). Although there is some overlap, the two documents are joined in a single function and make a strong beginning in the articulation of the field. If one added to these the combined abstracts of papers given at the three conferences on the subject so far (Auckland 1995, Dunedin 1996, Wellington 1997), what unfolds is a culture that at last seems big enough and complex enough to provide a limitless supply of opportunities for further studies on the one hand and further readings of current achievements on the other.

In 1769 when Captain James Cook was trying to represent a few Maori sounds in an English alphabet to his journal, Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary had been on the shelves for just 14 years and the standardisation (or standardization?) of English spelling was still settling in to its current forms. When Thomas Kendall tried to establish a standard English orthography for Maori words from 1815-1820, the poet Keats was still using variant spellings in poems and letters, Shelley either couldn’t spell or was diverted by the variety that English spellings made available and Byron was leaving “the stops”, his punctuation, to his publisher, John Murray — as poet Ursula Bethell had left hers to publisher Denis Glover in Christchurch just over a century later.

This is a kind of story that could be multiplied forever. Yet this fragmented collection of short stories is our heritage, is what informs, shapes, argues, accuses, guides, teases, bewilders, frustrates, enlightens all of us in ways that we are usually barely aware of. If I have here been apparently at odds with various matters in the Guide, it is only because I have accepted its invitation, as readers ought, to add to the discussion, become part of its process, think more about its gaps, its theorisings and its methods. It is should be read, not just by specialists but by any enquiring mind that wants to find out more about who we are. For the opportunity provided by the Guide we must be deeply grateful to the editors, the authors and the dedicated purpose of the Humanities Society of New Zealand/Te Whainga Aronui.

Alan Loney is a poet and the printer /manager of the Holloway Press at the Universiy of Auckland

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Posted in Literature and Review
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