There are lots of compelling answers to the question, "Why book history?" Most of them would quote Don McKenzie, I'm sure. His stuff about how the medium effects [with an 'e'] the message and about how we have to concern ourselves with the relation between form, function, and symbolic meaning (Bibliography and the Soc of Texts, page 10). Maybe his claims about how documents bear the evidence of their own making (Making Meaning, amplified by McGann's recent New Republic of Letters). McKenzie is now the patron saint of bibliography.
Today, the New York Times's David Brooks offered a more urgent but presumably unconscious answer to "Why book history?"--unconscious in the sense that he's thinking about media and culture but not books in particular. Writing about an event that, given the pace of things, may be swallowed up within a few days' time, Brooks observed that "the crucial thing is that the nation’s culture is now enmeshed in a new technology that we don’t yet know how to control."
This is exactly why book history, for at least two reasons. First, Brooks's claim about the effects of social media on a culture (however accurate) suggest the ongoing relevance of book history. Some grasp on how people in early modern England reacted to and exploited the proliferation of printed documents is not merely instructive but necessary to comprehending the shift Brooks describes. Plenty of folks have written about this, of course, but it's worth saying again. Second, Brooks's claim--expressed with a combination of capaciousness (THE nation's culture!), urgency (NOW! NEW!), and determinism (YET!)--falls into a long tradition of people trying to make sense of the media transformations of their time. I'm reminded of the 1637 proclamation, A Decree of Starre-Chamber, Concerning Printing (STC 7757), which shows the Star Chamber, in its attempts to regulate the press, try to make sense of the social effects of a media transformation. Didn't work out so well for the Star Chamber.
A fun find in my research for Bookish Words. Multiple writers speaking of the flood as the defacing of the book of nature. Here's Samuel Clarke in 1642: "As Noah, when the deluge of waters had defaced the great booke of nature, had a coppy of every kind of creature in that famous Library of the Arke, out of which all were reprinted to the world: so he that hath God hath the original coppy of all blessings, out of which if all were perished, all might easily bee restored."
Then there's a 1647 pamphlet titled A Word to Lieut. Gen. Cromwel: "Let not us therefore indeed fear any thing, but this only, least God should be our Enemy; For as Noah, when the deluge of waters had defaced the great Book of Nature, had a Copy of every kind of Creature in that famous Liberary of the Ark, out of which all were reprinted to the world; so we, that have God, have the Original Copy of all blessings, out of which, if by this generation of monsters, I mean those that have put the Army into this distemper, all were perished, all might easily be restored again, for God is the best store house a people can have; The Name of the Lord is a strong tower, and the righteous flie unto it and are safe."
This pamphlet riffs on Clarke's words to make a political claim. It's a bit awkward. Several other writers in the later seventeenth century reuse the same phrasing Clarke uses. I haven't yet tracked down whether Clarke was the first, though he is the earliest I've seen so far. My initial response to this bookish metaphor is that it's a messy one, bibliographically.
The academic job season is upon us. Graduate students, postdocs, faculty members, and others are poring over job ads for this or that academic position. Some are excited to see a dream job listed. Perhaps others are wondering whether they should modify their materials to suit a job outside their field. No one I know isn't at least a little anxious.
In my neck of the woods (early modern English), there are about a dozen job ads so far. To provide a sense of scale, there are forty or so in rhetoric and composition. This discrepancy is not new, but it does have me thinking about the shifts that have occurred in the humanities, and in English departments, in the last ten years or so. I am wondering whether three trends are closely, even causally, related. The three trends are:
Moreover, to return to the subject of this year's job market, it seems obvious to me that shift #3 has abetted shift #1. Without curricular mandates such as a Shakespeare requirement, students tend to avoid courses in medieval and early modern English. (Which is a bummer for them, because it's really great stuff.) And, in a higher ed culture that constitutionally obeys market imperatives, a perceived (or real but manufactured) lack of demand among students means fewer faculty hires to supply. Here again, the choices leading to #3 above have closed a pipeline for future (and present) scholars of medieval and early modern English.
I should say: it's also the case that the conditions underlying #3 directly affect 1 and 2. For example, the shift in English studies from a "knowledge base" model, wherein students must acquire a basic knowledge of the field before moving to advanced work, to a "capacity base" model, wherein students acquire certain critical and technical (in the best sense) capacities as they study mostly what they please, makes it easy to see texts written and published before 1800 as undesirable and unnecessary. It also makes hiring someone who studies those earlier cultures much less urgent. That said, I think there's evidence for the relationship between curricular changes and the other two changes, especially at institutions where urgency is a function of student credit hour demand.
It seems we are working in a new economics. The curricular constraints that used to guarantee a certain level of "demand" from students for pre-1800 courses have been mostly abandoned. (This is a miniaturized version of the way many of the curricular constraints that used to help university students "find" English and humanities have been abandoned in the new regimes of higher ed.) I'm not sure if this means we have moved from an "unfree" market (in which student choice is constrained by curriculum) to a "free" one (in which student demand determines everything from curriculum on up to, I'm arguing, graduate cohorts and faculty hires). In some ways this seems like just as unfree a market as the previous one, because it ultimately reduces choice to a different set of material factors: time of day courses are offered, whatever the most recent generation of students determined was valuable, whatever is most expedient for completing a degree, whatever sounds easy or cool (how many students avoid Shakespeare because it's difficult!), or simply other curricular factors. This is the danger of some kinds of curricular reform: they offer merely an appearance of freedom. Other thumbs are always on the scale.
So what's to be done? Maybe this deserves a separate post. It seems unlikely (and would be unwise) that departments will reinstitute requirements they set aside for many reasons, most of them good. But it also seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that all we pre-modernists need is better marketing. (For the record, I think we do need better marketing, but I don't think it's a sufficient answer to this problem. This goes for the humanities more broadly.)
One thing I think we need to do is recognize and act upon what I've hinted at several times here: that the problem of pre-modern English is a more specific version of problems in the humanities more broadly. The new economics taking students and faculty away from medieval and early modern studies is the same economics taking energy and resources away from the humanities.
This year, I was promoted with tenure at my university. Many tenured colleagues had warned me that "a change" would occur around this time. I remember one medievalist at another institution proclaiming, "the summer you receive tenure, you will enter a deep, dark depression." I don't know if that's happened (can any sadness be traced to a single source in 2018?), but I can say for sure that this milestone has caused me to do a lot of thinking about the state of the university, the state of my field, and the next few years of my own research work. All this thinking left me wondering, what am I about as a scholar?
I phrase it this way because I know lots of people who leave little uncertainty about what they are about. I think of Claire Bourne, for instance, or Adam Hooks. I think of Erika Lin and Whitney Trettien and Brett Greatley-Hirsch. I'm constantly impressed at the way these great scholars and friends have established a clear sense of what they are about. I'm not sure I have the same kind of focus. So, for whatever they're worth, here are some thoughts I recently composed as I thought over this question:
What am I about as a scholar?
In terms of theory and literary critical methodology, what am I about?
What do I want to accomplish in the next five years?
In the classes I teach, I often make a version of this proclamation: to understand the world today, you have to study the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is, I say with considerable grandeur, irresponsible and even damaging to emphasize contemporaneity at the expense of the relatively recent past. Typically I appeal to some kind of metaphor to express how important the early modern period must be to those who want to consider themselves educated, literate, critical, informed, thoughtful, wise, woke, smart, insightful, engaging, engaged, and so on: the early modern world is the foundation on which the contemporary world is built. It is the wood in which the fires of postmodern society burn. It is the roux that makes the twenty-first century soup taste as it does. It is the violence that precedes the, well, violence. It is the stage on which the actors of the last four-hundred years performed the play of modernity. I won't pretend that each of these metaphors makes the same claim about the importance of early modernity. Part of the fun is that they model the situation differently. The response is usually a mix of annoyance (is that why we have to read Shakespeare?!), skepticism (that simply can't be!! This stuff is so old!!) and ignorance (wait, there was a Civil War in England?). The latter response is most common.
If asked, of course, most people would agree that the Renaissance is a crucial period in human histories and cultures. But values and priorities come out most clearly in the hard choices: curriculum (pre-1800 writing and Shakespeare have been given less and less emphasis in recent years), hiring (there used to be six early modernists at my university; now there are two), and what we might call marketing (emphasizing contemporaneity and skills rather than a historically-oriented body of knowledge). In what I'm told was a controversial essay in the Chronicle (and in American Affairs before that), Justin Stover recently pointed out that the humanities is being "squeezed on both sides." I don't think it's untrue to observe that this has become especially true of fields like mine, which for a long time were considered "central" to the humanities. My own experience tells me that folks are more indifferent than hostile, though in both cases, as I suggested, ignorance underlies the response.
There are very good reasons why “Renaissance English Literature” is no longer considered the central point of literary and cultural history, but here are a few equally good reasons to keep studying early modern English literature and history. In no particular order, and with no commentary. The exclamations are my way of indicating that the importance of these should be obvious to you.