The Reach of Bibliography: Looking Beyond Letterpress in Eighteenth-Century Texts

24 April 2015

The 2015 Lyell Lectures, taking place at the Weston Library, will focus on book history and bibliography.

The lecture series, consisting of six lectures across the first three weeks of Trinity term, begins next Tuesday and are open to all. The lectures are hosted by the Bodleian Libraries' Centre for the Study of the Book.

Image of Michael F Suarez, SJMichael Suarez, SJ, this year's Lyell Lecturer, discusses the topics the lectures will cover:

A book historian's reach should seldom if ever exceed his (her) grasp, as there can be no substitute for the careful and knowing inspection, the haptic apprehension, of textual artefacts. Yet, it is also the case that the intellectual reach of book history and bibliography extends far beyond traditional work in service of textual criticism, however necessary and important that labour truly is. Accordingly, the subject of this year's Lyell Lectures is 'The Reach of Bibliography: Looking Beyond Letterpress in Eighteenth-Century Texts.'

Believing that the central question of bibliographical and book-historical scholarship is 'How did this book come to be as it is?', I examine six printed artefacts that are variously resistant to traditional methods, but which, over time, yield a plenitude of historical meaning. Reflecting on what each might teach us - perceived via the categories of evidence, inference, argument, and omission - I hope to make my lectures valuable not only for specialists, but also for the field of book-historical inquiry more generally.

In each lecture, I attempt to enlarge our historical understanding of the textual object, not only through the careful study of multiple copies of a given work, but also by setting it in relation to other printed artefacts, thus creating constellations of objects that have bibliographical resonance.

A good case in point is John Pine's Horace (Qvinti Horatii Flacci Opera, vol. 1, 1733; vol. 2, 1737), a book made entirely from engraved plates. Because there is no letterpress in this work, conventional analysis has almost nothing to offer. Yet, in order to fulfil bibliography's commission - to understand the textual artefact in history - new methods and new ideas must be marshalled, some of them adapted from other object-oriented disciplines, such as art history, archaeology, and museum studies.

The subsequent lectures will treat a broad array of objects, each of which is resistant to standard methods, but each in a different way: a hand-coloured natural history book (Lecture 2); the creation and proliferation of the image of the slave ship Brookes (Lecture 3); an eighteenth-century London newspaper (Lecture 4); a deluxe edition of the works of Caesar intended for European nobility (Lecture 5); and the abridgments of Cook's Voyages made for common readers(Lecture 6).

Taken together, the remit of these Lyell Lectures is to extend the reach of bibliography; to make it more consonant with the interpretative historical work of the humanities; and to demonstrate what we might learn from attending to printed artefacts in more capacious ways.


The lectures take place every Tuesday and Thursday at 5pm for the first three weeks of Trinity term. Find out more and book a place on our What's on website.

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