Caroline Davis and David Johnson, eds. The Book in Africa: Critical Debates. New Directions in Book History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 280p. ISBN 9781137401618. £55.00 (hardback).
The Book in Africa: Critical Debates is the third title in Palgrave Macmillan’s wide-ranging new series New Directions in Book History. In a decade when scholars have begun to look beyond the western and predominantly white print culture to push forward the former boundaries of the field, this new volume edited by Caroline Davis and David Johnson provides researchers with eleven case studies encompassing the fields of the history of the book, publishing studies, library studies, and literary history. Essays examine practices of production, copying, dissemination, reception, and consumption of manuscripts and books in North, West, and South Africa, making a stand against the belief that “histories of the book in Africa to date have largely been written by ‘outsiders’” (1).
The volume is composed of three sections with standalone essays examining material that stretches from early Ethiopian manuscripts to Cameroonian internet communications. Part I, entitled “From Script to Print” focuses on the relationship between the already-present manuscript traditions and printed books. The first article is notable as it produces a contrast to Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism thesis where “capitalism best drives the assembly of disparate communities through print commodities circulated via the market” (18). Archie L. Dick claims that South African copying and circulating practices were mostly dominated by progressive groups who were trying to help slaves or ameliorate women’s status in society rather than promoting mechanisms of capitalism. Next four essays make up Part II, “Politics and Profit in African Print Cultures,” and examine the political and economic impact of printing. In this part, Catherine Davis’ meticulous study on the book empire of the Longmans in Africa is a valuable resource for publication studies. Part III, “The Making of African Literature,” investigates the influence of traditional and western publishing practices on African literary texts. Ruth Bush and Claire Ducournau’s essay is important as it lays out clearly the dynamics between France and its former colonies through a case study on Francophone African literary prizes.
While providing valuable information, a few essays fall short in explaining the significance of their subject matter in a larger framework. Each article provides the reader with immense information on the political, historical, ethnic, financial, and geographical characteristics of the era and area that it examines, but some fail at transcending the quality of an individual case study, responding to other essays in the collection, and engaging with broader critical conversations. One other weakness of the volume is the absence of women. Female authors or publishers are very rarely mentioned (255), let alone engaged with. One would want to read more about the women participating in publishing cultures, or at least about the reasons of their absence from it.
The volume contributes successfully to the recent attempts of de-Westernization in the field of book history as it challenges a notion that is still widely accepted, that “African book history begins with the arrival of Europeans” (89). Essay after essay, the contributors prove the opposite by explaining how circulations of manuscripts and traditions of copying do in fact indicate an African book history independent of the European influence. As such, The Book in Africa: Critical Debates is path-opening: it excels at putting forward the vast uncharted territory in African book history that is yet to be studied. One weakness of the volume, that even as being one of the most comprehensive studies in African book history it covers only a minority of book and print cultures in the continent, becomes its one strength and promise: each of the eleven essays could and would inspire extensive research in wider geographies with broader perspectives.