Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

The Failure of the Book

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Albrecht Pfister, Die Edelstein, thought to be the first illustrated book (1460s). The illustration is a woodcut.  [illustration from the Stadtbibliothek Berlin, public domain]

Books about book history are usually triumphalist: how the printed word democratized knowledge, made learning possible, changed the way we think, and so on. Sadly, my conclusion is rather different: in at least one vital way, books have failed us.

To demonstrate this paradox, there is no better example than one of the classics of book history: The Coming of the Book, by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. First published in 1956, it was translated into English in 1978. The reviews were unanimous: “this work … will continue to occupy scholarly attention for many years to come” (TLS); “one of the most exciting scholarly books ever written on printing” (Sunday Times).

Why is this scholarly book a failure? Simply because the subject matter, the invention and early development of the printed book, requires detailed technical explanation and illustration. Yet the book contains not one figure, not one photo or drawing. I am currently reading a chapter called The Book: its visual appearance”, and a section called “Illustration” – without any illustrations. This chapter includes descrptions of roman type and Gothic type but without illustrating either. Febvre’s book contains detailed descriptions of illustrated books, without ever illustrating the text.

The term “xylography” is used to describe a type of machine-based illustration, without ever explaining what it is. The first index reference to the term is to a page that does not contain the term itself. Any reader attempting to find out what this term means is ready at this point to abandon the idea completely. A dictionary definition makes it simple: “the art of printing from woodblocks”.

Scientific journal articles have no difficulty illustrating the concepts they are trying to present. So why should humanities not be able to follow the same principle? Am I the only person to see the irony in describing the first ever illustrated book without illustrating it?

In 1461 Albrecht Pfister of Bamberg conceived the idea of illustration several books … one of them was a small collection of popular fables, the Edelstein (precious stone). In this first illustrated book, the simple figures in line without shadow, afterwards quickly colour in wash … were not without charm.” [p91]

We have been through almost six hundred years of book development, which could, and perhaps should be described as a process of continuous improvement; yet it has led to a crazy situation where somehow academic texts feel that illustration is beneath them; any serious book does not require pictures. How an academic text could be considered in any way adequate when the subject matter required illustration is a mystery to me; but I have learned one thing from The Coming of the Book, which is that illustrations were used alongside text from almost the first-ever printed book, both for religious and for secular works. Even today, illustrations are treated as secondary to the text. Still common today is the book with a few photos printed on higher-quality paper many pages away from where they are referenced in the text. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to say we have gone backwards over the five hundred years since the invention of printing.


The Charleston Conference 2023


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  1. Mike McNamara

    Hi Michael,

    An interesting post.

    Your point about Illustrations in books being left in limbo without any ‘connection’ to the relevant text still amazes me when I see it.

    To some degree, I think cost, both at content creation stage — when a ‘link’ needs to be inserted in the text that can then be used during the production of the final typeset version. Such as to automatically produce a ‘see illustration on page x’ message or used to build a ‘List of Illustrations’.

    Even if the content creator did not any links in the original text, employing an Indexer to do that work, has become extremely expensive, albeit for the most ‘top-dollar’ books.

    Mike McNamara

    • Michael Upshall

      Good point, Mike, but I think digital publishing should make it cheaper to get these things right – we aren’t talking about a further stage of expensive proofs!

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