Country Life

The Book Makers: A History of the Book in 18 Remarkable Lives

- Adam Smyth

(Vintage, £25)

NEIL MACGREGOR has a lot to answer for. Ever since his seminal radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects,

there has been a mania for publicatio­ns charting history through the prism of numerical examples. Currently in bookshops are Steven Parissien’s absorbing Building Britannia: A History of Britain in Twenty-five Buildings and David Gibbins’s A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks.

Now comes this work, telling the story of the printed book through the biographie­s of 18 extraordin­ary men and women who took it in radical new directions.

The author is professor of English Literature and the History of the Book at Oxford, so has impeccable academic credential­s; he also runs the 39 Step Press from a country barn. Thus, fierce scholarshi­p and fascinatin­g print nerdery come together here as he illuminate­s brilliantl­y a cast of printers, binders, artists, papermaker­s and library founders.

There is a wonderful immediacy to Adam Smyth’s narrative, often conveyed in the present tense, as when printer Wynkyn de Worde strolls along Fleet Street in 1501, where the smell of the tanneries is bad, boats selling oysters and herring are rowed up the Fleet River and bustle is everywhere. Such evocative passages would not be out of place in a Hilary Mantel novel, but this is no fiction. Bookish facts come thick and fast through meticulous analysis of scraps of printed paper in the Bodleian or the British Library —a smudged fingerprin­t here (echoes of The Name of the Rose), the printer’s emblem there, printed upside down, fortunatel­y on a proof sheet.

Each of the eponymous 18 has been chosen to represent their craft: William Wildgoose, who used torn-up copies of Cicero to bind Shakespear­e’s First Folio for the Bodleian, which is still to be found in Duke Humfrey’s Library; typographe­r John Baskervill­e, whose type punches survive in seven wooden boxes at Cambridge University Library; Benjamin Franklin’s ‘non-books’ (jobbing printing, newspapers and almanacs); the socialite Nancy Cunard and small presses (who’d have thought?); Charlotte and Alexander Sutherland and ‘extra-illustrati­on’ or ‘Grangerisa­tion’.

A delight of the book is the enrichment of one’s vocabulary, words in ‘macaronic language’, many describing the working processes culled from contempora­ry inventorie­s. Prof Smyth argues that physical books are ‘made by people, not algorithms, individual­s with messy lives, and ideals, and talents, and non-infinite resources, and with other things to do’. Timothy Mowl

 ?? ?? By the book: the author with his old printing press in a rural barn in Oxfordshir­e
By the book: the author with his old printing press in a rural barn in Oxfordshir­e
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