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Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe Review


At times I’ve wondered about the dual nature of compliments. Almost every positive trait can be easily linked to a critique which is in essence the same. Someone who is friendly can be overbearing. peaceful is passive. Smart is a know-it-all. Honest is tactless. The same goes easily enough to books: sweeping and broad can equal scattered. Detailed can be petty. Epic can become a dreadful slog. The only thing which changes is the perspective of the reader. I like books that I read most of the time, and it’s intriguing when these positive tales reverse and become negative.

This is the feeling that I had with Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe by Anthony Grafton. Anthony Grafton is a renowned historian certainly; deeply involved in research on philosophy in Europe in the 16th through the 18th centuries, and you can see how accomplished he is just by how many books he has already on the subject.. This is the subject of his book, not the theme that you would assume, printing technology and book production. It is hard to easily categorize the people it treats, since it is a collection of around a dozen European philosophies, with their most common theme being their focus on the bible.

It’s key point is that the process of book writing and research wasn’t the product of lonely heroic researchers, but rather a web of contacts and ties. But was this ever in doubt, that there was a necessary link between book researchers, writers, producers, and each other? And although it talks at length about how the intellectuals had to get their fingers inky, but it quickly moves away from this: instead it focuses on the intellectual realm, and other than the beginning and the end, the print shop never appears again: rather it simply seems like a list of philologists. The look at distribution of printing labor is well done at the beginning section, laying out the division of labor and how different parts were esteemed, and how intellectual work was so much esteemed above manual work, but it is so short that it is just a tiny part of the book, before it moves on to philology.

There are some interesting parts about this, such as the writer of the travel book, Omnium gentium mores, leges et ritus (The Customs, Laws and Rituals of All Peoples) Boemus, and his style, relationship to change, and information gathering, but this feels like the lonely cloistered intellectual and not the more involved and messy person that Anthony Grafton writes was the necessary figure of a book writer. The same goes for other people, ho gave historically interesting tid bits such as the belief of Cambridge being extent from the 4th century BC, the attitude on divination, the relationship with the historicization of the bible.

I don’t think the book is bad, but it is misleading titled, and its ostensible subject, to the casual reader, bears no relation to the philosophy it focuses on. I think the above word is key: the casual reader. It requires someone focused on the intricacy of European early modern writers and textual research, not someone purely interested in or looking for printing. Or just read the first few chapters, which much better track the relationship between editors and writers than the rest of the book.

On the other hand, there is an excellent video on the subject that Grafton has online. This hews much more closely to the idea his book is ostensibly about, and I heavily recommend it over the book unless if you want to learn about philology.

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