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WHAT IS A BOOK ?

By Roger Chartier
cole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) and University of
Pennsylvania.

Kant raised the question in 1797 in his Science of Right . His answer
1

distinguished between two natures of any book. On the one hand, a book
is an opus mechanicum, an product of mechanical art and a material
(krperlich) object which can be reproduced by anyone who is in the
rightful possession of a copy. On the other hand, a book is a discourse
addressed to the public by its author or by the publisher who has received
a mandate given by the author and who is authorized for speaking in the
authors name. It is the absence of such a mandatum who made illegal
the unauthorized (i.e. pirated) editions of books printed by publishers who
were not entitled by the author to address their writing to the public.
At the end of the eighteenth-century, in the context of the debate
over the property rights of writers and publishers, Kant framed in a legal
and juridical language the ambivalence of the book which was expressed
metaphorically one hundred years earlier. Around 1680, Alonso Vctor de
Paredes, who was compositor and then printer in Sevilla and Madrid,
expressed the double nature of the book - as material object and as
discourse -

thanks to an original image. He turned upside down the

classical metaphor which described the human body or face as a book, as,
for example, in Romeo and Juliet or Richard the Second, and he
considered, not the human being as a book, but the book as a human
creature : Asimilo yo un libro a la fbrica de un hombre, I compare a
book to the making of a man. Both, the book and the man, have a
rational soul (anima racional) and a body which must be elegant,
handsome and harmonious (un cuerpo galan, hermoso, y apacible). The
soul of the book is not only the text as it was imagined, written or dictated
1

Immanuel Kant, Metaphysik der Sitten, (1797), in Kant, Gesammelte Schriften, (1902),
Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 1968, Volume VI, pp. 203-491, en particulier pp. 289-290,
English translation as The Science of Right,, 31, II. (available
at
www.kwoledgerush.com).

by his author, the buena doctrina; it is this text given in a acertada


disposicin, an adequate presentation2. If the physical body of the book is
the product of the work done by the pressmen or the bookbinders, its soul
is not molded only by the authors invention, but also by the decisions
made by the printers, compositors, or proof-readers who take care of the
punctuation, spelling, or lay-out of the text. For Paredes, as later for Don
McKenzie, foms affect meaning and the substantive essence of a work
cannot be separated from the accidentals of its printed texts.3
If the book can be compared to a man, it is because God created
human nature in the same manner than a printer prints a book. In 1675,
Melchor de Cabrera Nuez de Guzman, who was lawyer in the Royal
Council of the King of Spain, published a pamphlet which aimed at proving
that printing was not a mechanical trade but a liberal art which deserved
the renewal of the fiscal privileges and exemptions granted to the master
printers, the correctors, the compositors or the pressmen 4. For Cabrera,
mankind is one of the six books written by God. The other ones are the
Heaven, compared to an immense chart of which the stars are the
alphabet ; the World itself which is a universal library or compendium
encompassing the entire Creation ; the Book of Life which has the format
of a register containing all the names of the disciples of Christ, Christ
himself who is both an exemplar to be copied and exemplum to be
followed, and the first of all the books, the Virgin, whose creation was
decided even before the creation of the World, in the Mente Divina, in
the Divine Mind. Man is the only book printed by God : God put his image
and seal on the press in order that the copy would be true to what it had
to be and he desired to rejoice himself with a great number and a great
variety of copies of his mysterious Original.

Alonso Vctor de Paredes, Institucin y origen del arte de la imprenta y Regla generales
para los componedores, Edicin y prlogo de Jaime Moll, Madrid, El Crotaln, 1984 [reed.
Madrid, Calambur, Biblioteca Litterae, 2002], pp. 44v.
3 D.F. McKenzie, Making Meaning. Printers of the Mind and Other Essays, Edited by Peter
D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S.J., Amhert, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002,
en particulier Typography and Meaning : the Case of William Congreve, pp. 198-236.
4 Melchor de Cabrera Nuez de Guzman, Discurso legal, histrico y poltico en prueba del
origen, progressos, utilidad, nobleza y excelencias del Arte de la Imprenta, Madrid, 1675.

For Paredes when he describes his art, for Cabrera when he justifies
the privileges of the printers, or for don Quixote when he visits a printingshop in Barcelona, textual production is a material process which involves
places, machines, and workers. Between the author's genius and the
capacity of the reader, as wrote Moxon 5, a multiplicity of technical
operations defines the process of publication as a process in which the
textuality of the object and the materiality of the text 6 cannot be
separated.
For a long time, however, in the Western tradition, the interpretation
of texts, whether they were canonical or not, was separated from the
analysis of the technical and social conditions of their publication and
circulation. There are many reasons for this dissociation : the permanence
of the opposition between the purity of the idea and its corruption by the
matter,7 the invention of copyright that established the authors property
on a text considered as always identical to him, whatever the form of its
publication,8

or

the

triumph

of

an

aesthetics

that

judged

works

independently of their different and successive materialities 9.


Paradoxically, the two critical approaches that have brought to bear
the most sustained attention to the material modalities of the inscription
of the written word have reinforced rather than combatted this process of
textual abstraction. Bibliography has mobilized the rigorous study of the
various states of the same work (editions, issues, copies) in order to find
an ideal text, purified of alterations inflicted through the process of
publication and supposedly in conformity with the text written, dictated, or
dreamed of by the author10. Hence, within a discipline dedicated almost
5

Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683-4), Edited by
Herbert Davis and Harry Carter, London, Oxford University Press, 1958, pp. 311-212.
6 For the definition of the category of materiality of the text, cf. the seminal article by
Margreta de Grazia et Peter Stallybrass, The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,
Shakespeare Quartely, Volume 44, Number 3, 1993, pp. 255-283.
7 B. W. Ife, Reading and Fiction in Golden-Age Spain: A Platonist Critique and Some
Picaresque Replies , Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
8 Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, Cambridge, Mass. and
London, Harvard Univerity Press, 1993; and Joseph Loewenstein, The Authors Due:
Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright , Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2002.
9 Martha Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of
Aesthetics, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994.
10 Walter Greg, Collected Papers , Edited by J. C. Maxwell, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966 ;
R. B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students, Oxford, Clarendon

exclusively to the comparison of printed objects, the obsession for lost


manuscripts and the radical distinction between the essence of the work
and the accidents that have deformed or altered it.
The deconstructionist approach, for its part, has forcefully insisted
on the materiality of writing and the different forms of the inscription of
the language11. But in its efforts to abolish or to shift the most immediate
oppositions (between orality and writing, between the speech acts and
the

reproducibility

of

writing),

such

an

approach

has

proposed

encompassing conceptual categories (archi-writing, iterability) that


divert from the possible perception of the effects produced by the
empirical differences that they are effacing.
Against such an abstraction of discourse, it is necessary to recall that
the production, not only of books but, fundamentally, of texts themselves
is

collective

process

that

implies

different

moments,

different

techniques, and different interventions : that of the book publisher, the


master printer, the copy editors, the compositors, the proofreaders. The
transactions between the works and the social world do not consist then
only in the aesthetic and symbolic appropriation of objects, of languages
and of rituals or daily practices as the New Historicism might wish 12.
They concern more fundamentally the multiple, mobile, unstable relations
between the text and its physical embodiment, the work and its material
inscription.
The tension between the two ways of considering the book, as
discourse and as object, does not allow for easy resolution. David Kastan
has recently characterized as Platonist that which considers that a work
transcends all its possible material incarnations, and as pragmatic that
which affirms that no text exists outside of the materialities that propose it
Press, 1927 ; Fredson Bowers, Principles of Bibliographical Description, Princeton,
Princeton University Press, 1949, Bibliography and Textual Criticism, Oxford, Clarendon
Press, 1964, et Essays in Bibliography, Text, and Editing, Charlottesville, University Press
of Virginia, 1975. See also Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography, Oxford, At
the Clarendon Press, 1972.
11 Jacques Derrida, De la Grammatologie (Paris: ditions de Minuit), 1967, and Limited Inc
(Paris: Galile, 1990).
12 Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations. The Circulation of Social Energy in
Renaissance England, Berkeley et Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 120.

to its readers or listeners 13. This double and often contradictory perception
of texts divides both literary criticism philological critique and editorial
practices, opposing two positions.
For some philologists, for example Jean Bollack 14 or Francisco Rico15,
it is necessary to recover the text as its author composed it, imagined it,
desired it, mending the wounds inflicted upon it as much by manuscript
transmission as by the composition and printing in the printing shop. It is
a question, then, of confronting the various states of the text in order to
recuperate the work that the author has written, or wished to write, and
that the printed book has deformed or betrayed.
For others, for example the most recent Shakespearean critiques,
the forms in which a work has been published constitute its different
historical incarnations. All the states of a text, even the most inconsistent
and the most bizarre, should be understood and eventually published,
since they are the work as it has been transmitted to its readers or
spectators. The quest for a text that existed outside of its materialities is
therefore futile. Editing a work is not an attempt to find an impossible
ideal copy text, but to explain the preference given to one or another of
its versions, as well as the choices made by tradition or the contemporary
editor as to the lay-out, the divisions of the text, its punctuation, or its
typographic and orthographic forms16.
A same tension between the immateriality of the work and the
materiality of the text characterizes the relationship of the readers with
13

David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Book, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 2000, 117-18.
14 Jean Bollack, LOedipe roi de Sophocle. Le texte et ses interpretations , Lille: Presses
Universitaires de Lille, 1990, tome I, Introduction. Texte. Traduction, pp. xi-xxi and 1-178.
15 Francisco Rico, Historia de texto and La presente edicin, in Miguel de Cervantes,
Don Quijote de la Mancha, Edicin del Instituto Cervantes, Dirigida por Francisco Rico,
Barcelona, Instituto Cervantes/Crtica, 1998, , pp. CXCII-CCXLII and CCLXXIII-CCLXXXVI,
and Imprenta y crtica textual en el Siglo de Oro, Estudios publicados bajo a direccin de
Francisco Rico, Valladolid, Centro para la Edicin de os Clsicos Espaoles, 2000.
16 Stephen Orgel, What is a Text?, in Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of
Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass, New York
and London, Routledge, 1991, 83-87, and, as examples, for the two King Lear (1608 and
1623), cf. The Division of the Kingdoms. Shakespeares Two Versions of King Lear,
Edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983, and for
the three Hamlet (1603, 16904 et 1623), cf. Leah Marcus, Bad Taste and Bad Hamlet
dans son livre Unediting the Renaissance. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, Londres et New
York, Routledge, 1996, pp. 132-176.

their books even when they are neither critics nor editors. In a lecture
delivered in 1978 titled El libro, Jorge Luis Borges states: I have thought
about writing a history about books. But immediately he separates
radically this history of books from all consideration of the material
forms of the written word: I am not interested in the physical aspect of
books (especially not the books of bibliophiles, that are habitually without
any measure) but rather in the various ways acording to which the book
was considered . For him, works that form the heritage of humanity are
17

irreducible to the series of objects that have transmitted them to readers


or listeners. Then, a Platonist Borges.
And yet. When, in the fragment of autobiography he dictated to
Norman Thomas di Giovani, the same Borges recalls his encounter with
one of the books of his life, Don Quixote, it is the object itself that first
comes to his mind: I still recall the red binding and the titles in gold
lettering of the Garnier edition. There came a day when my fathers library
was dispersed and when I read Don Quixote in another edition, I had the
feeling that it was not the real Don Quixote. Later, a friend obtained for me
the Garnier edition with the same illustrations, the same footnotes and the
same errata. For me, all these things were part of the book; for me, it was
the real Don Quixote . The story written by Cervantes will be forever for
18

Borges this copy of one of the editions that the Garnier exported to the
Spanish-speaking world and which was the reading of a reader who was
still a child. The Platonist principle counts for little when confronted by the
pragmatic recall of memory.
The contradiction set forth by Borges helps us think that the conflict
between Platonism and pragmaticism is perhaps a false quarrel. A
work is always appropriated, read or heard in one of its particular states.
With regard to times and genres, their variations are more or less
important and concern, separately or simultaneously, the materiality of
the object, the spelling, or the literality of the text itself. But equally,
17

Jorge Luis Borge, El libro, in Borges oral, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1998, pp. 9-23
(quotation p. 10).
18 Jorge Luis Borges with Norman Tomas de Giovanni, Autobiographa 1899-1970, Buenos
Aires, El Ateneo, 1999, p. 26.

always, numerous discourses (philosophical, aesthetic, judicial) try to


reduce this diversity by postulating the existence of a work identical to
itself independently of its form. In the West, Neo-Platonism, Kantian
esthetics, and the definition of copyright were the most powerful
contributions to the construction of this ideal text that readers recognize
inevitably in each of its particular states.
In 1791, Fichte has given a new formulation to such tension. He
framed a distinction, not only between the physical (krperlich) and
ideal (geistig) aspects of a book, but also, within the text itself, between
the ideas and the form given to them by the author. The ideas are the
material (materiell) aspect of the work, its content. Universal by their
nature, their destination and their utility, the ideas cannot be the object of
any personal property. The only legitimacy for such ownership derived
from the form in which the ideas, which are as a common material, are
expressed : each individual has his own thought processes, his own way
of forming concepts and connecting them [...] Hence, each writer must
give is thoughts a certain form, and he can give them no other form than
his own because he has no other. But neither can he be willing to hand
over this form in making his thoughts public, for no one can appropriate
his thoughts without thereby altering their form. This latter thus remains
forever his exclusive property . Thus, paradoxically, it is only by
19

separating the texts from any materiality, either the physical reality of the
book as object or the materiality of the ideas as collective repertoire,
that they could be considered and owned as were the real estates.
Nevertheless, literary works, philosophical discourse and juridical
categories remind us of the material operations that contribute to the
collective production, not only of the books, but of the texts themselves.
They become commodities proposed to their readers only thanks to the
permanent negotiations between the intellectual and aesthetic definitions
of the work and the prosaic world of pens and presses, ink and types,
19

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Beweis der Unrechtmssigkeit der Bchernadrucks. Ein


Rsonnement und eine Parabel, 1791. Fragments of Fichtes essay are translated and
commented by Martha Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market. Rereading the
History of Aesthetics, op. cit., pp. 51-53, and by Bernard Edelman, Le Sacre de lauteur,
Paris, Editions du Seuil, 2004, pp. 324-336.

copysts and compositors. In this process what is at stake is not only the
circulation of social energy, but more fundamentally the modes of
inscription of textual vitality, and not only the competitions characteristic
of the book-trade, but also the meaning of the works.
In this sense a closer relation between history of the book and
intellectual history, or literary criticism does not invert the inherited
hierarchies by granting privilege to the materiality of symbolic productions
at the expense of their interpretation. As Joseph Leo Koerner has observed,
focussing attention on the modalities of textual inscription might be a
way of saving the soul by looking at material but finding it haunted by
subjectivity . This is a forceful reminder that the understanding of the
20

meanings invested in the works by their authors, readers, listeners or


spectators remains the first aim of our interpretative work. In this sense
the hermeneutic perspective remains essential for all of us. But, as Don
McKenzie wrote, new readers make new texts, and their new meanings
are a function of their new forms. 21 We know, then, that the recovery of
such a plurality of meanings can be fully achieved only if we are able to
retrieve in all their singularity and differences the conceptual categories
and material forms that gave to any text, canonical or not, its successive
historical identities.

20

Joseph Leo Kerner, Commentary III and Postscript, Word & Image, Volume 17,
Numbers 1 & 2, January-June 2001, Printing Matter, pp. 177-18O (quotation p. 180)
21 D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, The Panizzi Lectures 1985,
London, The British Library, 1986p. 20