Print and Knowledge in the Making
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A scholarly investigation of printing’s early cultural history in England. In 1979 Elizabeth Eisenstein published a massively influential book entitled The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Books, she said, enabled a stable and fixed culture of learning that uniquely facilitated the rise of scientific knowledge-making. Now Johns (Sociology/Univ. of Calif., San Diego) aims to revise her findings in his own learned (if exaggeratedly contentious) study of books and publishing in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. In contrast to Eisenstein, he argues that a multiplicity of competing and idiosyncratic cultures of print emerged during that era and that the conditions of knowledge were far from uniform. While he concedes it to be true that printed books stabilized texts and led to a degree of fixity in available knowledge, Johns proposes that a variety of cultural contingencies undermined what in retrospect has seemed to be the objectivity of early modern scientific thought. Not least among these contingencies were the rampant and labyrinthine practices of book piracy, a circumstance that undermined the authority and authenticity of print. Johns also suggests that different printers and booksellers developed different models of accrediting and appraising the trustworthiness of books. Much is made of the lively rivalries among the various factions, and the fates of various scientific books and writers are explored in copious detail, including those of Sir Isaac Newton, Tycho Brahe, and others. It is Johns’s overall strategy to emphasize the cultural and social factors that shaped the realm of the printed word, and in particular to underline the role that the mobile concept of “trust” (as opposed to verifiable fact) played in defining the culture of print that has come down to us. Relying on detailed knowledge of original texts and a magisterial view of the enormous secondary literature, Johns has written a fine-grained study with considerable force of argument. (125 photos, 3 line drawings)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-226-40121-9
Page count: 707pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1998