Book History and the History of Science

Nineteenth Century BooksThis morning I began reading the “special section” collection of articles published in The British Journal for the History of Science, entitled “Book History and the Sciences” (2000). Jonathan R. Topham provides an introduction explaining why historians of science have been not a little skeptical about the value of the book history approach. “It is often dismissed as an intellectual fad or as an enterprise which is illuminating but ultimately peripheral, rather than being valued as an approach which can offer major new insights within the field.” Historians of science in recent decades have tried to get away from an “unsocial history of ideas, usually rooted in texts,” so their apprehensions are well taken. In this sense they see book history as retrograde.

Topham wants to reassure historians of science that book history does indeed “reintroduce social actors,” but with the caveat: as “engaged in a variety of practices with respect to material objects.” It is an approach that rejects a history in which books are seen as merely disembodied texts. According to Topham, book history “applies to print culture an approach which historians of science have pioneered in other contexts, such as studies of laboratories, observatories, lecture halls and museums.” Such an approach can contribute significantly to a cultural history of science. “Exploring in detail the historical encounters of readers with printed matter enables the historian to elaborate an account of scientific communication by print which, instead of methodologically privileging the role of scientific authors, acknowledges the complex and contested nature of such communication.”

Besides this introduction, I found particularly fascinating Lesile Howsam’s “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: the International Scientific Series.” She argues that “a close examination of the publishing history of scientific books can be particularly fruitful for the scholar interested in how text and physical object combined to constitute the reader’s experience at a given place and moment in time.” Her object of study is the International Scientific Series (ISS), published in Britain and North America from 1871 to 1911. She asks a series of questions about the histories of authorship, of publishing and of reading in the Victorian era: “What are historians of Victorian science to make of this collection of texts, most of which were written by scientific practitioners, and some by world-famous men of science? Can we construe the contributions as an ideological community in the scientific culture of the late nineteenth century? What are we to make of the publishers and promoters of the series? Can anything be found out about the people who read the books and what contribution they made to popular conceptions of what constituted the ‘sound material’ of science that prevailed in the closing decades of the nineteenth century?” But whereas historians of science may inquire about the way professionals and amateurs defined science in the ISS, historians of the book may inquire: “What and how did these works fit in the contemporary context of scientific publishing, and of publishing in general? Were the texts as fixed as they appear, or is there evidence of revision? When revisions occurred, were they announced to booksellers and the reading public, or were they concealed? Did publishers agree with the titans of science who gave them editorial advice about what constituted a saleable manuscript, and when they failed to agree, whose opinion prevailed?

Both sets of questions yield remarkable dividends. According to Howsam, “editorial decisions about what titles to include in the series are evidence of contemporary definitions of science, particularly the inclusion of the social science with the natural sciences.” Moreover, “production decisions about how to keep the series in print are evidence of how the contemporary culture of science interacted with the culture of publishing.”

Books emerge not merely from artistic motives, but from a “desire to instruct,” “inform,” or “persuade.” Books, and nineteenth-century books in particular, were “conversion projects,” and scientific authors of science of nineteenth-century Europe and North America “were just as passionate evangelists, for science, as were their opposite numbers in the missionary societies.” T.H. Huxley and his coterie wished to revolutionize the dissemination of science in society, to create a much broader audience than before. They found this in Edward Livingston Youmans (1821-1887) call for a series of new books “covering the entire field of modern science.” Youmans was an American writer working for New York publishing firm D. Appleton and Company. According to his biographer, John Fiske, Youmans was “an interpreter of science for the people.” In 1871, Youmans traveled to Britain to pitch the series to a number of scientists and philosophers, including John Tyndall, T.H. Huxley, his close friend Herbert Spencer, and even requested Charles Darwin to endorse the project. Youmans and William Henry Appleton entered into contract with London publisher Henry S. King and Company later that year. Before returning to New York, Youmans also traveled to France and Germany, making arrangements with publishers and scientists for the corresponding series there.

Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer would form as ISS’s advisory body, “charged with helping the publisher decide which books should be included in the series, and to some extent with soliciting further titles form their powerful network of acquaintances.” Their motives, according to Howsam’s analysis of letters and other documents, were threefold. First, they wanted greater recompense for their own personal efforts. Second, “they envisioned the series as a tool in their campaign for a more secular approach to public policy.” Finally, they wanted the series to “educate” the non-professional reader about what they perceived was the latest developments in the physical and social sciences.

Howsam goes on to show how bookseller became aware of the series, how it was revised for new editions, including substantial changes based on criticisms and translations, the addition of prefaces or appendices to bring them up to date, and how in general authors kept their specific contributions “alive.” “Although the series must have found its place on the bookshelves of many collections both public and private,” Howsam argues, “few collectors were aware of the fluidity of the texts enclosed inside the uniform red bindings.”

In tracing its reception, Howsam relies on book review columns gleaned from Nature and Westminster Review, but also suggests other journals, letters, and autobiographies in order to enter the consciousness of nineteenth-century readers of popular scientific works. These latter remain, however, fragmentary, and thus periodical reviews is our best source of “what the reviewers, and beyond them readers, thought of how the series was achieving its objectives.”

“In the hands of Yousmans, King and Appleton, and Huxley, Tyndall and Spencer,” Howsam concludes, the International Scientific Series became a “vision of modern secular science.” And it was the “publishers who made the ultimate publishing decisions.” Books have a dual nature, as text and as physical object. Investigating both aspects, historians of the book are “learning to recognize the malleable text lurking below the deceptively bland leather or cloth-bound skin of the apparently torpid beast, and to demonstrate that books produced in the past had a recoverable dynamic existence in that past culture.” Book history reveals books as complexly embodied objects, giving us a glimpse of  “motivations not only of the men and woman who wrote and published them, but also of booksellers who distributed them and the readers who consumed them.”

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