Book Parts — hardback, 352 pages, with colour plate section and in-text black and white illustrations, 234x156mm, ISBN 9780198812463, published 2019 by Oxford University Press, ‘a department of the University of Oxford’ which ‘furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship and education by publishing worldwide’, according to the copyright page — has at first glance all the appeal and certainly the appearance of an utterly dull academic tome. The contents page begins forbiddingly by promising a ‘LIST OF FIGURES’ and a ‘LIST OF PLATES’, followed by yet another list, of the academic accomplishments and affiliations of the various ‘CONTRIBUTORS’, plus one of those irritating ‘A NOTE ON THE TYPE’ things (it’s Caslon or Caslon variants, and the fleurons are Caslon Ornaments or Adobe Caslon Pro, as if you care), before finally getting to a list of the contents of the 22 chapters, a ‘SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY’ and, thank goodness, an ‘INDEX’.
Edited by Adam Smyth, fellow at Balliol and professor of English and the History of the Book at the University of Oxford, and Dennis Duncan, a research associate at the Bodleian Library, the book announces itself as an ‘intervention in the growing field of the history of the book’. It consists of chapters by various scholars who examine the book ‘not as a single stable object’ but as a combination of ‘separate component pieces’. Thus, chapters on dust jackets, frontispieces, acknowledgements, dedications and epigraphs etc.
One might well assume, therefore, that Book Parts is going to be pretty much unreadable and uninteresting, except perhaps to that rare sub-sub-species of the academic sub-species, the book historian. The good news is that it’s not at all unreadable or uninteresting. It’s a book designed to appeal to anyone like you or me, the proverbial common reader, who has been reading books for longer than we can remember, yet who perhaps knows next to nothing about the history of the fleuron or the architectural origins of the epigraph and the frontispiece (from medieval Latin, meaning ‘looking at the forehead’ and referring originally to ‘the front of a building’).
I certainly did not know, for example, that the earliest recognised dust jacket belongs to a literary annual entitled Friendship’s Offering of 1829. Nor that e.e. cummings’s self-published No Thanks (1935) contains a dedication to the 14 different publishers who had rejected the manuscript: ‘NO THANKS TO Farrar & Rinehart, Simon & Schuster, Coward-McCann’, etc. Nor indeed that acknowledgements tend to be printed at the front of academic books, unlike works of fiction where the acknowledgements go at the end — this primary placement offering ‘a means to publish the author’s CV and boast of influential friends’.
There is perhaps sometimes a hint of grad-school swank in the book — as when a title page is described as
the site of a book’s self-presentation to its potential audience, where it informs readers about a text by in-forming — moulding into structured information — the facts of its production
and the chapters do vary rather in tone between the hail-fellow-well-met of an introductory guide and the sly Masonic hints and winks of the old-school academic monograph.
But if some chapters read like contributions to a peer-review journal destined to be read by only a very few peers, many others are more welcoming. Tamara Atkin’s fascinating piece on the history of character lists, for example, entices the reader with a description of those at the beginning of Jilly Cooper’s novels. The one for Mount! (2016), doubtless familiar to Spectator readers, includes a note on
Mr WAN (ZIZIN): A corrupt Chinese mafia warlord who is cruelly colonising Africa. Also sexual predator known as ‘The Great Willy of China’.
Book Parts is not a book about the construction and engineering of books but about the forms and conventions in the presentation of words and images on the page, and the relationship between texts and their various paratexts. For the purposes of the paratext that will help determine and accompany the paperback edition, let me offer this little blurbable quote: ‘Rich, odd, interesting.’