Understanding the book, and how it was shaped in the past


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By Frederick Noronha

The history of the book? What’s that, I can hear you asking. This might be a new term to many of us, given that the field is itself quite nascent. For instance, the academic journal ‘Book History’ was established only in 1998. In India, just two universities — Jadhavpur and Pune — seem to be seriously involved in work in this field. It has only recently been seen as an important field for study.

The history of the book is broadly defined as “the history of the creation, dissemination, and reception of script and print”. In a simpler language, it deals with the ‘back story’ of the book. What all was involved in making a book, into a book.

Recently, the University of Pune held an interesting seminar (in late September 2013) in this field. It was called ‘Journey of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital’, and looked at a wide range of subjects indeed.

Historians looked at ‘the book as history’. Others focussed on manuscripts in Puranic texts, contestations over the Bible in India, and Tamil texts from its Palmyra leaves times.

Dr. Rajan Barrett, a friend of Goan issues who traces his roots to Mangalore, spoke on ‘The Bible: Reception, Rejection, Contestations and Reformulation in India’. When we met up later, Dr. Barrett mentioned that he had started out life in academia in the field of Mathematics, but moved quite drastically to another field like English.

To me, the most interesting paper was the animatedly-presented one by Dr. Abhijit Gupta (Jadhavpur) called ‘Darogar Daptar, or the Strange Case of the Non-Existent Books’. Gupta looked at the fictional stories of a retired police officer of another (the 19th) century. The officer talks about some five book-related scams, involving a single unsucessful writer, in the Battala area of north Calcutta, once the heart of the book market in Bengal. The stories were fascinating; but more than that, it also reminded one how much certain parts of the country — like the Bengalis — love their books.

From a Goa perspective, there was something of relevance too. Sandra Ataide Lobo, who recently completed her PhD in Portugal, offered some interesting insights into Goa’s first bookshop, and the interaction between the political climate and book publishing at different points in the history of colonial Goa.

Roanna Gonsalves’ presentation came packaged under the intriguing title ‘What is the capital of Frankfurt?’ Gonsalves, who is Australia-based and currently in Goa completing her PhD on Indian writing in English, was sharing her experiences in tracking Indian publishing at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012, the “world’s oldest, largest and most prestigious book fair”. The “capital” in the title refers to the sociological concept from the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu.

Roanna says of Frankfurt: “It is a literary space, a practiced place, where the Bourdieusian interest in disinterest in economic capital is at its lowest, and the creative labour of the writer is turned into a commodity bought and sold in a marketplace.”

Other presentations looked at the classicisation of north Indian music, the Bangla Karbala narratives, the impact of Christian missionary journals in 19th century Assam and its literature, Pottermania, and even the impact of imports of Enid Blyton into an India of the 1960s.

For anyone with an interest in the book, this is indeed an interesting field. Books cannot be judged for their literary merit alone. We could overlook the wider picture, forget what books have been published, when and under what circumstances. Even understanding this field more adequately would help us deal with our own (much ignored) intellectual trajectory in a more adequate manner.

Book history touches on a wide range of themes really. For instance, the social, economic and cultural history of authorship. Then, there’s editing, printing, publishing and the book trade involved. Issues like copyright, censorship and libraries come in too. Literacy, reading habits and reader response cannot be overlooked either. With such a rich tradition in the printed world, Goa would do well to take streams such as this serious.

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