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The future will know us by our giant coffee-table books

Textual works create a trace through which the future can know its past. We interrogate  the texts (meant in a broad sense) that history deems worthy to survive to determine what came before. So question of survival is paramount to humanist epistemology. Lost books lobotomize the historical/archival record and so in exploring these losses we can begin to understand the limits of historical necromancy based on the text.

In Volume 10, Number 2, of The Library, Alexander S. Wilkinson discusses “Lost Books Printed in French before 1601.” He compares two 16th century catalogs of books (François de La Croix du Maine, Premier volume de la bibliotheque (Paris, chez Abel L’Angelier, 1584) and Antoine Du Verdier, La bibliotheque (Lyons, Jean d’Ogerolles pour Barthélemy Honorat et Thibaud Ancelin, 1585)) to the database used for the French Vernacular Book Project. He observes that survival of copies of books printed prior to 1601 is based largely on two factors: physical size (as reflected in imposition scheme) and topic. Larger books were more likely to survive than smaller books, and reference, illustrated, or poetic works were more likely to survive than texts intended to perform functions (political tracts, almanacs, literature, calendars, games, textbooks, etc.) . Although the size of print runs for these various texts would be hard to know, it is easy to imagine that the functional texts were more popular and printed in greater numbers. Large reference works, while highly useful, are simply not needed in as great a number as this year’s astronomical almanac. It appears the issue of rarity for these books comes from their treatment, not their conditions of publication.

I discussed the terminology of rarity in a previous post, but in this case relative rarity, the number of books surviving through historical accident, seems to more important than absolute rarity, the number of items produced. Wilkinson argues that some books were seen as more valuable, and less replaceable, and so were preserved. One easily explained exception is the low survival of bibles. Bibles, although reference works and large, were likely to be lost since they could be more easily replaced by another edition with the same text. Larger books were both more expensive and harder to lose because of their size.

So, if we extend this idea to our present production, perhaps coffee table books will define the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Scholars may try to understand the significance contemporary culture by looking for historical antecedents in Time Life’s coffee table books. These books are large, appear to be valuable (much to the chagrin of gifts librarians), are plentiful, and are a distinct text (not just another bible). This is, of course, complicated by preservation issues. Pre-1601 books were on hand-made paper and vellum, which is almost certainly longer lasting than clay-coated art paper which constitutes many of the recent coffee table books.

The lesson here, though, is that survival in the documentary archive depends on popular reception. Big, flashy, and apparently distinct books define the bulk of what remains, reinforcing the hegemonic interpretations. As critical scholars, we must therefore seek out the unusual, the small, the odd, and the paradoxical if we want to unmask the hidden narratives. Leave the historical “coffee table” books alone and take a look at the “almanacs.”

One Response to “The future will know us by our giant coffee-table books”

  1. W. Scott Howard Says:

    “Future-Past Ambidexterity: from digital to print & back again”

    The present moment in early-twenty-first-century history seems to revel in a technological ambidexterity that informs not only the lively discussions and documents here at Rare Frontier, but virtually all of the fields of knowledge and industry—that is, a robust commitment to both digital and print media. Survival—even for the giant coffee-table books—would thus seem to depend upon both/and.

    I recently learned this lesson in a surprising way. I edit and publish a peer-reviewed, open-access e-journal, APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / early modern Literature & Culture. One of our articles published in Volume One (2008), “Genre, Culture, and the Moment of The Merchant” by Sharon B. Meltzer,, will be reprinted in volume 132 of Shakespearean Criticism (Gale Publishing) scheduled for publication in 2010.

    Which of those two publications will become the historical antecedent against which to measure the contemporaneity of our work in future years at the journal? Which has (or will have) more authority: the original digital appearance of Sharon’s article, or the Gale reprint? The Gale reprint, when it appears, will offer a more ‘stable’ record of the content. The electronic copy, in contrast, will continue to move around at the journal’s home, since Appositions publishes comments (when they are submitted) and also since we allow our authors to update and revise their articles (when such changes are determined to be necessary). Two very different texts, that’s for sure, each autonomous yet inter-connected.

    For how long might such technological ambidexterity continue in the current century? If that dynamic reciprocity were to vanish, then we might really be living inside a truly new era. Until that moment arrives, we’re still so early-modern.

    —W. Scott Howard, University of Denver,


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