Heike Schaefer and Alexander Starre, eds., The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture: Medium, Object, Metaphor (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 277 pp. New Directions in Book History.
In the introduction to their recent special issue of American Literary History, published in the summer of 2021, co-editors Lee Konstantinou and Dan Sinykin consider the influence of publishing as a creative industry on literature and literary history, arguing that literary scholarship of twentieth and twenty-first century U.S. literature needs to be grounded in the realities of the (neoliberal, corporate) publishing world: “Literary scholarship that lacks a rich sense of this ground reality, and the logics and incentives that shape the everyday experience of that ground reality, is incomplete” (Konstantinou and Sinykin 230). Arguably, Heike Schaefer and Alexander Starre’s 2019 volume The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture: Medium, Object, Metaphor pre-empted some of the work conducted in this landmark special issue. With a firm focus on the twenty-first century, Schaefer and Starre’s volume explores the interconnections between books as printed objects and their increasingly digital counterparts, and the almost entirely digital environment in which they are written, edited, ordered, and reviewed.
Both the special issue and the edited volume at hand are located at the boundary between Literary Studies and Publishing Studies / Book History scholarship. This is also reflected in the volume’s own production context, in what is perhaps an atypical venue for American Studies research. The Palgrave book series “New Directions in Book History,” established in 2014 and edited by Shafquat Towheed and Jonathan Rose, has become a highly visible site for scholarship engaging with material culture, book history (broadly understood), and contemporary Book and Publishing Studies. It is within this series that The Printed Book in Contemporary American Culture appears, alongside and in conversation with books such as The Contemporary Small Press: Making Publishing Visible (co-edited by Georgina Colby, Kaja Marczewska, and Leigh Wilson) and The Novel as Network: Forms, Ideas, Commodities (co-edited by Tim Lanzendörfer and myself), both published in 2020.
Schaefer and Starre’s volume is based on a conference held in 2015 at the University of Konstanz, Germany, under a nearly identical title and with roughly the same roster of speakers as the volume’s contributors. The volume itself has been arranged as follows, in five distinct sections: Introduction (I), The Printed Book and Formations of Knowledge in the Digital Age (II), The Book as Commodity and Fetish (III), Redesigning the Codex: Current Experiments in and Beyond the Book (IV), Afterword (V).
In their introduction (Section I), Schaefer and Starre delineate the complexities of the book as a material object in a digital, even post-digital world. Their focus is on what they call “book-centered scholarship in American Studies” (9), and this is reflected in their choice of foundational texts by scholars like Jim Collins and Ted Striphas. Gérard Genette’s concept of paratexts runs through the volume implicitly, since many of the chapters engage with book packaging, labelling, and marketing in one way or another. Looking further afield, I have found Australian scholar Simone Murray’s The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era (2018) to be highly useful for the topic at hand. More generally speaking, Rachel Noorda and Stevie Marsden’s 2019 review of Anglophone twenty-first century Book Studies research could be a good companion to Schaefer and Starre’s capacious introduction.
Section II (“The Printed Book and Formations of Knowledge in the Digital Age”) contains three chapters that center literary texts and their relationship to knowledge, (big) data, and print: Regina Schober opens with a comparative study of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers; Antje Kley follows with a reading of Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland. Reingard M. Nischik focuses on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a text less contemporary (and certainly more canonized) than those in the chapters before. Chapter 5, still in Section II, deviates from the pattern with a chapter by the eminent Janice Radway, whose previous work has stretched and pushed the boundaries of Literary Studies in groundbreaking ways. Here, Radway discusses the role of zines in between print and digital, and the challenges zines pose for traditional library logics. Although it seems an unusual choice to have located this chapter within this section, it is a welcome addition to discussions surrounding do-it-yourself book culture.
Section III (“The Book as Commodity and Fetish”) opens with an article by Christoph Bläsi. He offers a potluck of impressions on the American book industry. He draws on Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s interesting work on small presses in the Pacific Northwest, emphasizing the role independent publishers can play in what we can consider to be American literature’s conglomerate era. Aleida Assmann follows with a fascinating analysis of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, reading it as a celebration of the book as medium and physical object. This ties in well with the following chapter by Jessica Pressman, author of the very recent Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. Here, she focuses on short films about books and reading, and what they can tell us about the role of books today. She draws upon “The Joy of Books” (2012), supplementing her observations with examples of stop-motion films incorporating elements of bookishness, such as “Going West” (2009).
Section IV is dedicated to “Redesigning the Codex: Current Experiments in and Beyond the Book.” Two of the authors and texts coming under scrutiny here belong to the “usual suspects” of these debates in American Studies: Alison Gibbons looks at Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword and Kiene Brillenburg Wurth analyzes Anne Carson’s Nox. The fact that they are the “usual suspects” does not detract from their topicality, rather, it feeds into it. Monika Schmitz-Emans, though, considers Santa Esperanza by Aka Morchiladze, a book that was originally written in Georgia (the country, not the state) and has hitherto not been translated into English. This implicitly underscores U.S. publishing’s dearth of translations and its so-called “three percent problem.” Despite the foray away from American literature, this section offers more cohesion among the chapters than the other sections do.
Section V is an afterword by Garrett Stewart, whose work on materiality and the book-as-object have informed the volume throughout. Stewart responds to the completed volume, offering his own observations—his own review, juxtaposing the contents of the volume with “recent ventures in art history rather than book studies” (255). This afterword is a wonderful addition, simultaneously rounding off the volume but also infusing it with new perspectives and opportunities for further discussion and reading.
Overall, Schaefer and Starre have brought together a wide range of interesting readings and approaches. Many of the contributors are well-known in their respective fields, which is an additional draw. The chapters are useful individually and, cherry-picked, they could complement syllabi on contemporary American fiction by adding a new layer of inquiry. The entire volume gives a solid overview of current ideas about and approaches to the book-as-object in American Studies. From a Book Studies perspective, the volume contributes to a productive engagement between the two fields, while also hinting at the challenges of interdisciplinary entanglement. The volume certainly belongs on the shelf of American Studies libraries—the volume itself and its core observations indicate that it is not trivial whether it is available physically as the print-on-demand volume that Palgrave offers or digitally via a library catalog.
Corinna Norrick-Rühl (WWU Münster)
Ramdarshan Bold, Melanie. “An ‘Accidental Profession’: Small Press Publishing in the Pacific Northwest.” Publishing Research Quarterly 32.2 (2016): 84-102. Web. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12109-016-9452-9.
Konstantinou, Lee, and Dan Sinykin. “Literature and Publishing, 1945-2020.” American Literary History 33.2 (2021): 225-243. Web. https://doi.org/10.1093/alh/ajab040.
Noorda, Rachel and Stevie Marsden. “Twenty-First Century Book Studies: The State of the Discipline.” Book History 22 (2019): 370-397. Web. Project MUSE. https://doi.org/10.1353/bh.2019.0013.