This is a cannily self-doubting guidebook to early book history. In keeping with Dane's skeptical and deeply but explicitly idiosyncratic learning about the topic, the title begins by raising doubt about this book's own categorical existence. Whereas Foucault's famous essay asking what an author is--which Dane's title nods to--supplies sweeping answers to that question, Dane's question indicates that he will break down generalizations and presumptions. Which he does, especially historical narratives concerning early printing in toto or books as various "kinds," in favor of much narrower categories or "states" and individual "book-copies" (Dane's preferred focus, as the plural of his subtitle shows). There are no historical themes here, though there is steady awareness of their temptations, and, especially, a resourceful questioning of tools and methods. Dane's own method is actually closer to traditional skepticism than anything theoretical, and his book sometimes closer to an essay in the vein of the period he treats: Montaigne's inquiries into what experience is, or a cannibal--or a civilized person. The second half of Dane's title is elusive in a similar way. Floating paratactically, it announces only "the study of early printed books." We may take this again in the spirit of Montaigne," on the study of early printed books": an intellectual activity to be pondered as such, rather than the impersonal posture in which most guidebooks are positioned, "an introduction to the study of early printed books."
Dane has a distinctive teacherly voice as well as a general philosophical imperative that resists the impersonality claimed by professional historians, including his own. Thus when Dane claims a "highest principle" for his whole endeavor, it is predicated on an anti-professional self-critique: "there is only one general bibliographical rule or principle I have imagined that I have enough confidence to pass on. You should examine a physical book under a single assumption, and you do not need any introduction to do this: never leave a library without knowing more than you knew going into it, and never close a book without knowing more than you did before opening it" (13).
The skepticism of general bibliographical rules, principles, and methods is pervasive and sustained, but it is also a useful organizing and rhetorical principle: a device for suspense and provocation. What Is a Book? does an excellent job of showing how such study should involve trying various tools and strategies and categories on hard problems, but dropping or repositioning any of them as soon as they reveal their inadequacies to the goal itself. Readers of Dane's other scholarship will recognize the approach. The author who, in the opening essay of his Who Is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb? Studies in the Reception of Chaucer's Book (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998), showed that no one really knows what once was (or, apparently, even what now is) written on Chaucer's tomb, now offers an assessment and display of the principles, technical resources, and inquiry and ruminations that guide his approach to early book history in general, sometimes sounding like querulous notes in the margin of earlier standard guides, by R. B. McKerrow or Philip Gaskell. But the personal and explicitly idiosyncratic focuses unfold a fairly comprehensive set of general topics. The emphasis is on the first general set, "Elements of Material Books"--not a misplaced modifier, since "elements" means 'issues' and 'properties', as in "the elements of style," rather than material elements alone, and includes typography, press variants, and the question of size. Here, by an explicitly personal, tactical approach to the subject we learn that book size is not a matter of cost, nor do different collections' quite different holdings of large vs. smaller books reflect single causes. Watermarks, about which we learn quite a bit, are also shown to be not generally useful for identifying the presses and dating books. Learning all the parts of an early press (as many of us were taught to do, from McKerrow or Gaskell) is, Dane suggests, nearly useless. Line spacing has been rigorously systematized to identify particular printers and particular timespans, thus achieving that goal far better than watermarks, but the systems used vary.
Much information is conveyed in these and other discussions of the elements of material books. Meantime there is a steady corrosion of the category of "edition," to which Dane much prefers the smaller category of "state." This is more fully the focus of the second, smaller and somewhat sparser part, "History of Books and Histories of Book-Copies." That such a section appears at all in a very short guidebook on early printing is to be welcomed. There Dane collapses even the categories of "forgery" and "facsimile," underlying all of this with a disintegration or distancing of the general category of "book," to which Dane inevitably prefers his very useful term "book- copy" (with its particular binding, paper, text, history, etc.). Dane's demonstration of the--including his own--struggle to pick up and toss tools, methods, categories as the situation demands is most dismissive in the chapters on online databases, where Dane documents his repeated but failed efforts to find consistent and accurate results from such databases and search--tools as the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Text Creation Partnership for Early English Books Online (replacing the older STC).
As Dane acknowledges, this section on online databases is most headed to obsolescence, and indeed, we don't find some of the projects that, at this writing, offer further opportunities to ponder and assemble early printing and manuscript materials, such as the very useful online textual supplement to the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. But the skepticism that drives What Is a Book? is generally well placed and certainly stimulating. If recent databases emit an aura of instant omniscience, earlier claims about book history have also often carried the glow of triumphalism, from Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1460-1800 (1958) to Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979--both of which indicate by their definite articles in "the" book and "the" printing press a shift in the march of history, which Dane's indefinite article in his title as well as his more glancing criticisms elsewhere resists.
Not that Dane supplies many tools for constructing Intellectual or literary history more widely in the skeptical vein that he endorses. The chapters on databases bring up the problems of counting and comparing editions of Cicero by place and century, but the results do not inspire confidence in going further, which seems Dane's main point there, about, for instance, accurately charting the progress of "humanist studies." Dane contents himself with taking occasional though deep swipes at the claims of enlightenment or even general "cultural change" in the "coming of the book" (he compares Febvre's and Martin's claims about the ideological progress implied in the invention of Times Roman to claims by the Nazis in the abolition of fractura). He also lingers for only a few pages, although with good results, on the difficulties of recovering authorial intention from the evidence of early book history. Discussing the speech of Edmund in King Lear (1.2), "Thou, Nature, art my goddess...," he there shows the reasons, in the signs of one printed edition copying another, for doubting whether the speech was originally verse (as it is in the Folio) or prose (as in the Quartos). The demonstration is so effective, it seems, that little further discussion of disclosing authorial intention from book evidence is needed (96-97). This dip into editorial theory is too brief, though it does adroitly flatten the editorial hierarchy, made famous by W. W. Greg, of positioning the value of textual "substantives" loftily above that of supposedly subtextual "accidentals." Moreover, at the end of the book Dane returns to the question of deriving intentions from early printed books, there using the evidence of a book owned by his own father that almost belonged to Dane himself. After demolishing confidence that he might learn anything about the intentions of a book owner and user very familiar to him, Dane offers his final "most important bibliographical principle of them all," that, "for the most important things, no amount of methodological study will finally do any good" (232).
At points like that (and there are others), the argument takes a step beyond undermining particular false presumptions into something more grandiose. Tone is not the only reason why this claim is not completely convincing as a call for closing the book (which it does). Rather, such seeming defeat is also focused on the kind of puzzle that moves forward the most intriguing and energizing discussions in the study. Pursuit of such peculiar unknowns elsewhere involves considering quite a bit of methodological study. And, not to be too picky, understanding the motives of book donors can sometimes be taken a step further by other kinds of inquiry, from correspondence to other kinds of biographical inquiry.
But the emphasis on the narrow limits of even extensive scholarly knowledge is healthy and basic for editing as well as book history, not to mention literary criticism and historical inquiry of any kind. Nor are the limits pondered simply those of ignorance. They are also the limits of book-history's professional categories and learning. Thus Dane acknowledges at the opening an "unnerving feeling" when he picks up a rare book "that I know exactly what I will say about it before I even look at it" (6). This admission too is startling, at least in emphasis, and again not entirely convincing. In my experience, book historians like Dane know better than the rest of us that there are always discoveries to be made in any individual object, picked up for the first or the hundredth time. Perhaps, however, the rest of us are not unnerved enough by our faint feelings of predictability and the prison-house of our categories. Remarks like Dane's are also surely designed to encourage non-specialists to trust their native talents and dare to enter this field of daunting technical knowledge, as well as, of course, for such specialists and non-specialists to acknowledge their own limiting presumptions.
Of those last, most common is thinking that printed books are simply identical copies, faithfully disseminating writers' ideas and words via the transparent and exact mass replication on which modernity prides itself. This view is, of course, the basis for more sophisticated triumphalist narratives about the "coming of the book," the displacement of more scattered and benighted (or more personalized and interactive) communications of medieval "manuscript culture," brushed aside by the unleashing of openly debated and testable arguments and uncensorable information in modern "print culture." This volume does a great deal to sap that once proudly crenallated but now teetering division of cultural history (not least in in its frequent choices of important printed medieval texts to mount its inquiries). But is Dane suggesting that, in spite of his efforts to see individual book-copies in all their existential and uncategorizable uniqueness, he may be no freer from generalizing intellectual blinders than those who have promoted such views?
It is unfair to look for complete, or completely articulated, philosophical and epistemological consistency in such a thoughtful and instructive guidebook. This book is both modest and ambitious, immediately personal and carefully exemplary, in its program and resources for situated, heuristic, tactical scholarship focusing on as well as incidentally using early printed books. There is a great deal to be learned here about the tools for and the limits of understanding early printed books and their history, especially for probing the elements of material books, and, in a generally cautionary way, about building narratives not only about "the" early printed book but about any instance of that intriguing body of materials, bounded by an elusive category.