The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2 volumes 9780198606536, Edited by Michael F. Suarez, S.J. and H. R. Woudhuysen, 2010

This is an important new publication for anyone interested in the history of the book.

To start from the outside: the 2 volumes come in a slipcase which is paper over boards, printed 1 color (maroon) with a nice overall design of typographical ornaments, picked up from the endpapers of the books themselves.  (I learned from these books that these ornaments are named fleurons.)  On the maroon panel in the center of the back cover of the slipcase, the set describes itself as “A History of the Book throughout the Ages”.  The barcode is a sticker applied to the bottom of the box. The slipcase is a tiny bit too tight for the two books: it’s hard to get them out, but maybe the loss of muscle tone we typically experience as we age will make access to the books progressively easier.

The two volumes, the first 720 pages, the second 688 pages, are bound smythe sewn in 16pp signatures in 3-piece cases (a style which I discovered from this work, is properly referred to as quarter binding) with maroon paper-based sides, and a leather-look material on the spine.  There’s one hit of gold foil on the spine, red & black head and tail bands, and a ribbon marker in each volume.  To my mind a ribbon marker is always just a waste of money:  I never use them, but I guess some must.

The books were printed and bound in China on a coated paper, though it is a one-color (K) job.  There are halftones, some of which bleed, but none seem to me to demand the use of a coated sheet, which for my money ends up having the effect of increasing the weight of the set more than it improves its look.  Having said that, I should say that the books are perfectly nicely printed.  The trim size, which may make more sense in millimeters (though given a Hong Kong origin, may not) is 8” x 10-5/8”.

Editorially the volumes are a hybrid.  The first 80% of Volume 1 consist of a series of essays on more or less general topics.  This is followed for the rest of the work by an A-Z reference section, where quite detailed items may be looked up.  I have read one or two of the essays, and they seemed to be quite interesting.  No doubt like all collaborative works these contributions are of varying quality. General topic include Writing systems; The sacred book; The book as symbol; Missionary printing;  Paper; The technologies of print; The economics of print; Printed ephemera; Children’s books; Bookbinding; The electronic book.  Most of these are determinedly historical in approach: for instance The economics of printing is principally a discussion of the 19th century British book trade, and the change from the book as luxury item to the book as mass market fodder. More than half of the essays fall into a series of The history of the book in . . . : Byzantium; Britain; Ireland; France; Low Countries;  Germany; Switzerland; the Nordic Countries; the Iberian Peninsula; Italy; Modern Greece; Austria; Hungary; Czech Republic & Slovakia; Poland; the Baltic States; Russia, Ukraine & Belarus; the Balkans; Sub-Saharan Africa; the Muslim World; the Indian Subcontinent; China; Korea; Japan; Southeast Asia; Australia;New Zealand; Latin America; Canada; America.

There are about 400 contributors. The main focus is the book as culture container, rather than the book as physical object, although there is more than enough of the second strand to make this a book with a slightly schizophrenic attitude to the world.  It’s really two books in one, or more like one and a half books in one.  At $325 it really has to be a book that is referred to in the library rather than looked for in your Christmas stocking.  Maybe one might persuade one’s employer to invest in a set for the office: the A-Z section does provide information on the origin and background of lots of book manufacturing and design issues.