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James Raven, Bookscape: Geographies of Printing and Publishing in London before 1800

James Raven. Bookscape: Geographies of Printing and Publishing in London before 1800. (The Panizzi Lectures, 2010.) London: The British Library, 2014. xv, 208 p., ill. ISBN 9780712357333. £50.00 (hardback).

This important work, which has its origins in the Panizzi Lecture series delivered by James Raven at the British Library in 2010, is densely stuffed with fact: names, addresses, dates. The work of a major book historian, it paradoxically verges on being book history without the book. Raven explains that his concept of a “bookscape” takes its cue not from “the representation and use of the object (the book)” but from “its place of production, based primarily on topographical resources” (5). His aim, accordingly, is to plot the shifting contours of the London book trade of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by means of a detailed analysis of early modern tax returns, documents produced by inspectors who made an annual record of the ownership and the rental valuation of each property they visited. Raven is alert to the challenges of using this material (Chapter 2 is a cool-headed masterclass on “The Evidence”) and scrupulously correlates it with trade directories, names and locations in imprints and contemporary topographical images. The picture he reveals is at variance with many of the findings of past scholarship. Raven highlights in particular “the plasticity of occupied space” (69): it turns out that most London booksellers, publishers, printers and stationers were leaseholders rather than freeholders and that these book trade professionals held surprisingly short-term leases, frequently migrating for short periods to new premises, often nearby. As Raven points out in one of his many illuminating asides, the sign was a more valuable identity marker than the street number (66).

An introductory chapter pans across the landscape of contemporary theoretical approaches to space and place, from Pierre Nora to Bruno Latour. This stimulating tour d’horizon raised expectations in this reader that the following chapters did not bear out. There is little use of these theoretical perspectives in the rest of the volume. Raven does touch on major trends and wider contexts, but only fleetingly. The book’s focus throughout is rather on the details of property occupancy and length of publishing careers, topics on which Raven has much new information to offer. A brilliant searchlight is shone on the publishing activity in a sequence of different parts of London: the heart of the trade in Paternoster Row and St Paul’s Churchyard; Little Britain, in decline as a book centre by the mid-eighteenth century; the Cornhill and Exchange district, as concerned with small job printing or “commercial-assistance activity” (102) as with book publishing; and the maze-like alleys and courts around Fleet Street.

There are a healthy number of illustrations, maps and tables. The book forms a part of the ongoing “Mapping the Print Culture of Eighteenth-Century London” project, in the online manifestation of which, presumably, pictures, maps and tables will bulk larger and be more easily searchable, and in which a completer picture of publishing in the capital will be given. Within the necessarily linear structure of a monograph, Raven does his valiant best to give us as much detail as possible. Partly because of this, however, Bookscape is not an easy read. It requires a reader with a basic grasp of London topography and a reasonable competence in eighteenth-century publishing history. Things are not helped by some awkwardnesses and slips in production: black and white and colour images appear in different parts of the book but in the same numbering sequence; the running head for Chapter 2 is, erroneously, the same as for Chapter 1; the caption for the cover image has been swapped with the caption for another illustration; and the typeface is punishingly small for old eyes.

Jonathan Gibson
The Open University

Published inBook review

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