Jeff Groves, Humanities and Social Sciences, Harvey Mudd College

"Signifying By the Book: What We Gain from the History of Print Culture"

On Thursday, March 23, 2006, Jeff Groves, Professor of Literature at Harvey Mudd College gave the presentation, "Signifying by the Book: What We Gain from the History of Print Culture" at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. (Groves is currently in the process of publishing the third volume in a five volume series entitled American Book History. The volume will discuss two subjects: trade communication (how printers began to use print to communicate and organize their business) and the courtesy of the trade (how printers negotiated publishing rights before copyright laws).) Groves noted that he was most interested in the way scripture is embodied in the world around us, and following an introduction to the field, the presentation focused on the technology and social history of religious texts of the nineteenth century.

The presentation began with an explanation of the term ‘book history.’ Book history has many other names, such as print studies and literary sociology. Each name has its own limitations: book history ignores print artifacts which are not books; print studies omits literary works before the invention of the printing press; literary sociology leaves out ways in which books signify beyond the letters within them.   Professor Groves quoted David Hall of Harvard Divinity School who is one of the preeminent scholars in the field: “History of the book is the history of culture and society.  The book and printed materials are so closely tied, especially in the modern era to the development of particular cultures.”   Whatever one chooses to call this area, it is clear that book history involves a variety of fields, including economic history, social history, the history of authorship and publishing, and literary studies. Because of book history’s interdisciplinary nature, scholars are able to investigate the relationship between books, readers, and values. Implicit in the study of book history is the profound impact that books have in the world. Books both facilitate communication and change; thus they provide a lens through which we may understand a given nation or society.

Following his introduction to book history, Groves discussed two books which exemplify current research in book history and the study of scripture. The first book, The American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880, by Paul C. Gutjahr.  According to Gutjahr the Bible was the most common book that people would have owned in early nineteenth century American culture.  By the end of the nineteenth century the Bible decreased in popularity in American homes to the point that it became hard to sell Bibles.  Gutjahr claims that because of the Bible’s abundance during the early part of the century, it became a book among books by the end of the century, and other Judeo-Christian books gained in popularity and cultural authority.  Thus, the Bible began to lose some of its authority within American culture.

The second book, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of the Mass Media in America, by David Paul Nord discusses the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century book societies that were dedicated to providing Bibles for every American.  Nord argues that because the people who value scripture wanted to make the United States a Christian nation they decided that what they needed to do was to guarantee a way of getting the Christian sacred text into the hands of as many Americans as they could. These societies can be described as the innovators of mass media, because they were the first to consider how to distribute information to as many people as possible. They dealt with problems such as printing, binding, and distribution. For example, the problem of printing was particularly complex before the use of printing plates, because the entire text had to be spelled out in individual type pieces. Therefore the publishers often kept the Bible standing so that it could be printed at any time.

Groves also noted a third book, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Reading and Publishing in America, 1789-1880, by Candy Gunther Brown, which discusses Christian magazines or newspaper organizations as being the primary affiliation for believers, even more than churches in the nineteenth century.

Along with current scholarly books, Groves also showed a variety of old books. The first was a Bible published in 1837. It was small and leather bound. Groves noted that the leather binding emphasized the sacred character of the text, because after the 1820’s, most books were published in cloth. The inside of the Bible was also different from most books of the time, because it had marginal helps and frames around each page, which serve to make each page special and significant.

The second artifact shown by Graves was a book The Happy Home, published by the American Tract Society in 1860. The book tells the story of a young girl who goes to her uncle’s house and becomes a good Christian. The book resembles a bound magazine with wood block illustrations, likely to entice people to read a proper book instead of the popular, worldly literature of the time.

Groves also showed a sample book used to sell subscriptions to Bible Readings for the Home Circle. Such subscription books were sold before they were published, often by veterans after the Civil War. The books had sample pages and examples of different bindings. This book illustrates how scripture had become a marketed item. We might be tempted to think of the Bible as a ‘free floating text,’ but it has a form in the world both historically and today.

Following the presentation, several questions were raised. The first was whether we were on the brink of a post-book society. Groves responded that in fact the market for books has never been better and there are more books in print now than ever before. New technologies might make communication faster and more efficient, but Groves sees mostly continuities in the technological revolution. For example, blogging for Groves is not much different from amateur newspapers of the nineteenth century. Amateur papers would consist of about four pages circulated by mail and would often encourage small-scale conferences. While blogging is a faster form of communication, it serves a similar purpose to amateur papers.

Another question concerned how book making changed after 1812. Before 1812, most books were imported, but by the end of the 1820s, tract societies were more sophisticated publishers than most book publishers, and they were willing to invest in new technologies. Around the same time, American companies began pirating successful English texts.

The question of women’s role in tract societies was also raised, but Groves stated that most members were men. Women could author tracts; however, such texts were not well documented or sturdily printed, so now it is difficult to argue what the total output of tract societies was.

Another question concerned the difference between Bible and scripture in nineteenth century books. Groves answered using a children’s book, The Two Brothers, as an example. While the story’s goal is to encourage moral behavior, the last page makes a leap from morality to theology, and this leap, Groves claimed, would not have been recognized by nineteenth century readers.

The presentation ended with a few points from Professor Wimbush:
*Part of the problem is our coming into critical consciousness about what ancient textedness and modern scripturalizing mean.  Ancient textedness is not the same thing as modern scripturalizing.  We tend not to look critically at the scripturalizing but see our own practices as somehow carrying the burden.  The ancient people were not scripture people the way we are, and we don’t come to terms with what that means.
*The American situation is so unique.  We don’t have many of the same dynamics as the distribution interest that was created in nineteenth century America as in other cultures.  It was a different kind of power dynamics where it was important for the clerics to hold on to the text and keep it away from certain people.

Other such questions may be:
Must scripture always be embodied? How do oral cultures allow their scriptures to take a form in the world?

How does the publication of various scholarly books (or scripture itself) reflect values of the culture? Noting trends in publishing, what can be said about the current perception of scripture?

Have scriptures in other cultures which have enjoyed an abundant amount of print culture gained the status of a book among books?

What has happened to scripture in a multi-faith society where also there is an abundance of print culture?  Does one scripture overpower another or have all forms of scripture authority been taken over?

About ISS

ISS facilitates research on the work we make scriptures do for us.

Donate to ISS

Please support our Programs and Initiatives. To donate, click here.


2010 Claremont Graduate University Institute for SIgnifying Scriptures 1017 N. Dartmouth Ave (909)607-9676