This series of four blogs will be almost entirely concerned to think through the terms of the title “Literature in Transit: Histories of the Book in the Twentieth Century“.
For what can we mean by “Literature” in a century that saw Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Barbara Cartland? Why should it be “in transit?” Why are we concerned to look again at the idea of the “book” in this electronic age when “books” are dying out? Perhaps most bizarre of all, I also want to query what we mean by “Twentieth Century“.
Defining the terms of my title will, perhaps curiously, enable me to sketch a history of book publishing mainly in Britain in the twentieth century, up to and including the internet revolution. It will also enable me to reflect on what we need to study in any large-scale historical analysis of a communications medium.
First of all then, we need to consider what a book might be.
I’m taking it to be a specific kind of information storage and transmission technology, and in that sense comparable to music recording or film. Of course it’s very different from them as well: it’s a material thing that has a specific and material history. Yet we mustn’t forget that it is fundamentally an earthly avatar with a traceable biography – a life indeed – of a much more intangible and abstract concept. If today we don’t often think of the book as a storage and transmission technology – while we do think of computers in that way – it’s because the book has become naturalised, simply part of our everyday lives, so old it doesn’t need to be thought about except in rare instances like Craig Raine’s famous 1979 poem “A Martian sends a Postcard Home”:
In the 1990s the new technologies of information storage and transmission woke us up to the fact that the book is just one manifestation of a more abstract concept. Today these technologies enable a text such as this where the history of the the book avatar is discussed. It’s only when lay people outside the book production industry are compelled to compare the book with other avatars of the same concept that we begin to reflect on the specific technologies of the book, its form, its history and its effects.
Literature I take to be the subset of information that comprises combinations of letters of the alphabet. This is what the original term letteraturameant in Latin – a writing formed of letters of the alphabet. The term applied to Greek or Latin as opposed to the Egyptian hieroglyphic mode of information storage or, as the philosopher Cicero suggests (following Plato), human memory. Literature may be encoded in books that appear on the market all at once or in other avatars of information storage and transmission such as periodicals, newspapers and pamphlets, and indeed now on the internet and in our computers. In defining literature by taking shelter in the etymological, I want to avoid for the moment the difference between high- and low-status information, Literature with a capital L and with a lowercase l. Again I think that it’s the new developments in information technologies that bring that distinction between high and low to the fore and lend it a particular urgency, especially for those of us involved in education.
Transit derives, of course, from the Latin verb “transire”, to go across, to pass from one state to another. In using it in my title I’m also thinking of the crossing that comprises the notion of the medium through which an author communicates with a reader. But of course “in transit” also suggests that the technology that enables literature is changing, passing from one state to another. At least since Marshall MacLuhan in the early 1960s we’ve thought about how the medium might be related to the message, how not only the medium itself alters but how this has an effect both on how the message is conceptualised by the author and by the reader – the message changes as the medium does. I won’t be writing about this much, but I will give a simple example – the novel as we commonly think of it depends for its existence upon technologies in paper production, cutting and binding as well as printing, not to mention technologies of distribution that allow publishers to get their wares to the consumer. They also depend upon a set of conventions about what certain kinds of information physically comprise. For most of the nineteenth century most novels published in book form were in 3 volumes and hardback.
Novels for us have become one volume – and not only that but paperbacks. I’ll be describing that particular technological transition from hardback to paperback in a later post. I just want to signal it here as probably the most important development in the twentieth-century material book as far as the reader is concerned.
A second association of “transit” that I want to foreground is the increasing perception of the motility of the written word. Once the dominant notion was “In scripta manent” – things remain through being written down – one thinks of the Ten Commandments carved in stone, immobile, resistant to the gnawing of time and the creativity of memory. The orthodoxy in the early twenty-first century is, however, that the printed word is always and everywhere in a transitional state. Texts are no longer considered self-contained units of meaning; rather we think of that each word as in a constant state of moving towards other words and states. Stasis, like fullness and completeness of meaning, are only illusions.
It may seem rather absurd to query what an apparently simple term like the “Twentieth Century” means. The terms refers to a simple period of 100 years from 1900-1999. Yet my question derives from a consideration of periodisation in history, a question that anyone familiar with the defintion of, say, “Romanticism” and “Victorian” will know well. What does an arbitrarily defined chronological period mean in relation to events that actually occur? In this case, is the history of the book really to be bound by a hundred cycles of a planet around a star? George Eliot began Daniel Deronda with comments on the “make-believe of a beginning”; so here I began to query the notion that the twentieth century, in book publishing terms at least, lasted the 100 years between 1900 and 1999. As I will be suggesting, it can be argued that the twentieth century in publishing terms began in the late nineteenth, in the 1880s or even the 1850s. Alternatively, we might say that it began as late as the 1950s. It may have ended in 1992 – in which case it might be very short indeed, less than 40 years.
Now there are an enormous number of ways the twentieth can be related to the other terms in my title. I’ll be looking at just eight of the most important over the next three blogs.