The University of Tokyo Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences

Language and Information Sciences


The University of Tokyo

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Department of Language and Information Sciences

3-8-1, Komaba, Meguroku, Tokyo 153-8902 Japan

TEL: 81-3-5454-6376

FAX: 81-3-5454-4329

The History of Books

A text cannot exist without its medium. Tales of war recited by professional storytellers in medieval Japan and chansons de geste in medieval France, for example, were usually realized by the human voice and the sounds of musical instruments. They were not always set down on paper, and the shape of the narrative went through subtle changes every time it was recited, just like extemporaneous performances of jazz music.

Of course, when we think of a text, we usually think of a written one. Yet even in this case, texts are not invariable. In manuscript culture, it is quite normal to find many different versions of a text circulated at the same time. The invention of print made possible mass reproduction and wide circulation of an identical text, with the result that the outline of the text and the profile of the author were stabilized and made clearer than ever before. The birth of Shakespeare as author is a case in point. This period also witnessed a gradual shift in reading practices from reading aloud to silent reading.

Literary space thus emerged within a historical context in which various aspects of the book—its materiality, authorship, textuality, and readership—interact with each other in complex fashion. Authorship, for instance, came to be represented in modern times through the author's proper name, copyright, and royalties. The artist, who had formerly received the patronage of kings and aristocrats, was cast down from the position of "prince des nuées" (Baudelaire) into the mundane world of the literary marketplace. The time had arrived when the value of a literary work was measured quantitatively by the royalty system. In revolt against this "suffrage universel de la littérature" (Zola), Flaubert attempted to sell the manuscript of his novel without letting the publisher read it in advance. Here we can see the artist’s dilemma encapsulated in a symbolic form.

We have sketched out several important issues in relation to the newly emerging field of the history of books. The aim of this discipline is to revitalize literary studies by paying close attention to the historical setting in which books were produced and received as material objects. It departs from the conventional strains of literary scholarship in that it avoids narrow focus on particular authors and particular works; nor is it restricted to the study of written texts. It willingly embraces the accomplishments of such highly specialized disciplines as bibliography and paleography, but it aims to move beyond them. We invite all students interested in this field to start with a close reading of literary texts and proceed to the study of books as cultural constructs made up of texts and their media.