Monday, November 21, 2022

An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students by Ronald Brunlees McKerrow

How books were made from 1500 to 1800
Although published in 1927, English bibliographer Ronald Brunlees McKerrow’s An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students is still a fundamental text for scholars and collectors of early printed books. This book is a detailed guide to how books are printed, or rather were printed, in the days before the industrial revolution (although much of the basic process has remained the same even with today’s modern machinery). McKerrow wrote the book for an audience of literary scholars who study old books and manuscripts. In general, he emphasizes the works of authors from Shakespeare’s time and earlier. He asserts, however, that the process of printing books didn’t change much from the years 1500 to 1800, so the information given can be applied to most works printed during that time span.

Nowadays, when a publisher prints 25,000 copies of a book, all of those copies pretty much look identical. That was not the case in the days of hand-set type and hand-cranked presses. Printers would make corrections as they went along, and each copy would have its own distinct characteristics. Sometimes, by studying the differences in printing between two copies, it is possible to surmise which was printed earlier or later, thus helping the literary scholar to discern which iteration could be considered the original, the corrected, the authoritative, or the defective version of the text. McKerrow instructs the reader on how to identify and describe these variations in copies and editions as a means of illuminating a book’s history. McKerrow’s detailed explanation of the printing process also elucidates how errors enter into the text between the author’s manuscript and the final printed book. All of this is useful to the literary scholar in that it helps to establish the author’s original intent and thus broaden understanding of the literary work and the author in question.

As a sort of field guide to rare early printed books, McKerrow’s Introduction to Bibliography is comprehensive and authoritative, but it is far from user-friendly. I have worked most of my adult life in book design, printing, and publishing, yet even I found this book quite difficult to understand at times. That’s not because of the arcane terminology, some of which was familiar to me and the rest of which I actually enjoyed learning, but because of McKerrow’s convoluted explanations. The book is chock full of footnotes, but to be honest the main text of the book reads like footnotes as well. McKerrow spends so much time highlighting irregular examples (he clearly revels in citing the most esoteric anomalies possible) that it’s hard for the reader to see the forest for the trees. Though one needs to know exceptions to the rules, this book often reads like all exceptions and no rules. I read a facsimile of the original 1927 edition, and it clearly could have used more illustrations. When discussing early printing presses, for example, McKerrow goes into a lengthy, almost indecipherable knee-bone’s-connected-to-the-shin-bone description of the machinery, when one simple labeled diagram would have been far more effective. In discussing typography, he even verbally describes typefaces, rather than showing the reader examples.

Though it’s not an easy or always pleasurable book to get through, for those interested in old books and bibliography it is worth the work. In the past century, others have no doubt published more accessible guides on the subject, but it’s hard to imagine anyone cramming in as much content and specificity as McKerrow has done here. Though intended for literary students, there is much valuable information here for collectors, librarians, or just curious and avid readers.
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