Books in the nation

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The history of the book is that rare field that speaks simultaneously in two registers, describing epic transformations via small scraps of paper. The great titles of print history in particular announce themselves with fanfare. In 1958, Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin wrote of ‘the coming of the book’, as of some great sacral event. In 1962, Marshall McLuhan conjured ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’. And in 1979, Elizabeth Eisenstein titled her massive, two-volume history of post-Gutenberg Europe The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, arguing that printing was ‘an unacknowledged revolution’ that had remade the world from 1450 forward. In each case, the historical model is one of impact (like an asteroid) or revolution (like a world-historical war). Even Benedict Anderson, in his more modestly titled study Imagined Communities (1983), insists on the seismic impact of what he calls print capitalism. All of these scholars imagine print, the printing press, the book and/or print capitalism as emanating from a singular point in time and space - from Gutenberg’s press, which in 1450 first introduced moveable type in Europe and then seems to have exported it everywhere. The purpose of this chapter is to revisit that argument and place pressure on it from below, with special attention to the question of how, when and why two deeply European forms - the nation and the (Gutenberg) book - came to be synonymous not just with one another but with liberal progress and, indeed, with our ongoing idea of what it means to be modern.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book
EditorsLeslie Howsam
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781139152242
ISBN (Print)9781107023734
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

Publication series

NameCambridge Companions to Literature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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