Monday, January 9, 2023

The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Oh, to be a printer in 17th century Holland!
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was one of the most literate countries in the world and published more books per capita than any other nation. In fact, as authors Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen convincingly argue in their 2019 book The Bookshop of the World, books should be the export for which Holland is renowned, rather than its tulips and cheese. During the 1600s, not only were wealthy collectors, intellectual professors, and studious clergymen amassing impressive personal libraries, but even common Dutch working stiffs also managed to prioritize much of their meager disposable income towards the purchase of books. In this copiously researched and detail-rich study, Pettegree and der Weduwen take the reader on a comprehensive tour of the publishing, printing, and bookselling industries in the 17th-century Netherlands. Along the way, they impart a wealth of information on the region’s political, religious, and economic history, perhaps more than most book lovers would ever want to know.

In the 1600s, the Netherlands included what is now Belgium and Luxembourg, or at least parts of them. The authors’ particular focus of concern here, however, is specifically Holland, the Protestant stronghold of the Dutch Republic of the North, as opposed to the predominantly Catholic Spanish Netherlands of the South. Holland included the two major centers of publishing, Amsterdam and Leiden, the latter home to the nation’s flagship university and therefore a center of scholarly publishing. Pettegree and der Weduwen also cover the rest of the Netherlands to a lesser extent. The Dutch were not only master publishers but also master marketers, allowing them to dominate the book trade in other European countries and languages, often drawing the ire of those nations whose own publishing industries suffered from the competition.

The text is divided into thematic chapters examining various aspects of the printing and publishing industries, such as political pamphlets, newspapers, religious treatises (of both Protestant and Catholic persuasion), exploration narratives, university dissertations, medical texts, and schoolbooks, prayer books, and almanacs aimed at the working and middle classes. Despite such categorical divisions, readers never lose sight of the overarching chronological history of the Netherlands, which the authors skillfully maintain throughout. At times they assume a pre-existing knowledge of Dutch history on the part of the reader, but for the most part a reasonably historically informed reader can follow along without getting lost.

The thoroughness of Pettegree and der Weduwen’s research is staggering. They seem to have read, catalogued, and statistically analyzed just about everything published in the Netherlands during this period. They combine all this data into an incredibly informative and well-written historical study. The problem is the question of who would want to read it. This is really a very specialized scholarly monograph on 17th-century Dutch history. The primary audience is the authors’ academic peers in the field. The authors, however, obviously consider this subject eminently fascinating and write the book as if everyone should be equally fascinated by it. They almost pull it off by doing a very good job of making the subject accessible to general readers. Even so, only the most avid enthusiasts of book history—rare book librarians and collectors, for example—will be willing to wade through so much arcane knowledge of early Dutch printing. I work in scholarly publishing, so I found the information on the origins of the university press and the Elzevier publishing empire quite interesting. As someone with Dutch heritage, I also enjoyed the vivid historical glimpse into the politics and religion of the literate and intellectual culture in which my ancestors lived. This book may not be for casual readers, but it provides an eye-opening education for those open to learning a lot about this subject.
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