John Sutherland

Being a printer was what Benjamin Franklin prided himself on most

Having learnt the trade as a child in London, the polymath established a thriving printing business in Philadelphia, bringing humour and enlightenment to the American millions

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin. [History/Universal Images Group/via Getty Images]

For some readers this book will have the charm of the Antiques Roadshow. Adam Smyth, professor of English Literature and the History of the Book at Balliol College, Oxford, presents with caressing attention to technical detail an array of illustrious book people. They may be unfamiliar names to those who don’t know a colophon from a cauliflower, but he makes his characters wholly accessible.

Smyth evidently chose the Bodley Head as his publisher for its connection with the Bodleian Library, in whose rare-books room he researches. As importantly, the Bodley Head was founded with a dedication to fine antiquarian books. The Book-Makers breathes bibliophilia. It recalls Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library’. Like Benjamin, Smyth unpacks his contents lovingly. Nonetheless, at deeper levels, his aim is subversively scholarly on a range of bibliographic fronts. His 18 book-makers offer a chronological, if bitty, 500-year history. Bittiness, as pioneered by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, has become a widely used historiographical tool. Smyth employs it deftly.

He opens in the early 16th century with Wynkyn de Worde, a Dutchman in London who took Caxton’s innovations, picked up from Gutenberg, to create a market both for patrons and ‘the common reader’ – a smallish number at the time but including a significant nucleus of women. ‘Birth girdles’, printed vellum belts for upper-class women’s pregnant bellies, were a thriving de Worde line.

Then comes a pioneering 17th-century binder, making viable commodities out of loose sheets and quires, and ‘bedding’ them between leather and card. He has the delightfully Roald Dahlish name of William Wildgoose. Another chapter relishes the chastity of John Baskerville’s 18th-century type. Smyth contends that Sarah Eaves, as Baskerville’s partner, wife and widow, played an important part in the creation and posthumous diffusion of the type that bears her husband’s name. Baskerville confirms Smyth’s view that the finest typography is one which the reader never notices.

Benjamin Franklin, a Da Vinci-like genius of many parts, always referred to himself as a ‘printer’ (a trade he learned in London). After producing de luxe editions, he saw the light and went populist, marketing humour, learning and enlightenment for the American millions. His switch was made possible by ever cheaper paper, particularly the mass production of wood-based pulp, and the mechanisation of the printing presses. Printing had become an industry, with small presses clinging like limpets to its hull.

Society’s appetite for gargantuan quantities of books peaked in mid-Victorian Britain with the circulating (or lending) library – most famously Mudie’s great establishment in New Oxford Street, to which Smyth devotes a chapter. His book-historical tourism ends with that most ephemeral of print mutations the ‘zine’ – pamphleteering which served, among much other underground embattlement, as platforms for feminism in the 1960s and after.

Where, then, as an argumentative scholar, does Smyth stand? The Book-Makers can be seen as joining one of the more furious recent bibliographical controversies. In 1979, Elizabeth Eisenstein published The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, which created an orthodoxy. She argued that print culture crystallised the fruits of the human mind, simultaneously enabling circulation of knowledge through current society and its reliable archiving for posterity. Knowledge could know itself. Twenty years later, her thesis was savaged by Adrian Johns in The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Print, Johns argued, should be seen as a conduit, a ‘form of agency’ not a ‘culture’.

Smyth is of the empiricist Johns camp, without making any big deal about it. He has bigger fish to fry. Book-making was, in its primal origins, a manly hand-and-muscle craft. Today’s profession retains an aura of masculinity. Is that the whole truth? Smyth discusses the 17th-century Little Gidding Anglican community under the superintendence of Nicholas Ferrar. Its female members specialised in Biblical Harmonies – sacred texts decorated with pasted-in cut-outs from other printed sources. Female fingers (nimble from sewing and scissoring) created a uniquely gendered art.

As a discipline, book history has found its academic home (without much welcome) in ‘English Studies’, in which Smyth is eminent. His subject has, for half a century, suffered the withering blast of ‘theory’. For the arch-theorist Roland Barthes, the author is dead. The physical printed book went to the grave alongside its makers, leaving its skeletal ‘text’ for critics to rattle at each other.

Smyth comes from the opposite direction, urging us first to contemplate and handle the book itself. Theory is an afterthought – the belch at the end of the meal. He even practises what he preaches as the co-founder of the 39 Steps printing collective. He, too, is a book-maker – doubly qualified to write this sparklingly learned book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.