Book Recommendations on the History of the Book and the News

I just got this very heart-warming note from TPM Reader RM about some earlier book recommendations. I replied by recommending two other books I just finished. So I thought I’d share the recommendations with you as well.

I just want to thank you for your frequent book recommendations. You have been especially helpful to me in finding good reading for my 93-year old mother who is an avid reader and history buff. She is reading the Empires of the Word right now and is really into it. This is probably the 3rd or 4th book rec from you that I’ve given her and they are a hit.

As I told RM, I’ve just finished two books by Andrew Pettegree, a professor at the University of St. Andrews. They are The Book in the Renaissance and The Invention of the News. They are similar books in a number of ways, both deep dives into the history of the early centuries of print. In the first case it is the early history the book and early print culture and in the other the history of news and the ways print transformed news distribution building toward the origins of the newspaper in the early 17th century. Especially the first but also the second book are based on research from a project called the Universal Short Title Catalogue, a project to catalogue the entirety of book printing in Europe before the year 1601. This is essentially the first century and a half of print.

The Book in a Renaissance is a slightly misleading title. This is really a history of the first couple centuries of print. That coincides with a good bit of the Renaissance, depending on how you mark historical eras. But it’s not about the Renaissance per se, at least not quite in the way that readers might anticipate. In any case, scholars have been writing about the cultural and social transformation of print culture for many years. That is a fascinating literature and this book is part of it. But what engaged me most about this book was Pettegree’s focus on the business of printing, not just its effects on culture and society (which can quickly become quite esoteric) but how publishing presses succeeded or failed in business terms, how distribution networks and markets evolved, how and why people bought books. In some ways this just makes for a more grounded discussion. Pettegree for example gives much more attention to the ephemera of early print culture – song sheets, quick reads which were meant to and were used to destruction. Full books are challenging business propositions filled with risk. The study is also filled with analogues and challenges and things to think about for those interested in the contemporary transformation of book and news publishing in the early decades of the digital publishing era.

The first newspaper, though vastly more rudimentary than anything we’d recognize, dates to about 150 years after the invention of movable type printing in Europe. Pettegree explains that much of what we now associate with news, especially as it includes opinion, explanation, context, is more rooted in pamphlets than early newspapers. The two have a fascinating interaction over centuries. In some ways our own era is more comparable to this period of interplay than most of the 20th century. Newspapers meanwhile have a different pre-history that doesn’t involve the printing press at all. These were the manuscript newsletters – subscriptions services often at very high rates – which stretch back into the Middle Ages, especially in Italy.

The Invention of the News is just as rooted in the business history of publishing as Pettegree’s study of the book. It sometimes seems in the later chapters that we’re getting a history of much of Early Modern Europe itself, just as it ties to, was driven by newspapers and pamphlets. But this isn’t really a problem. You just need to sign on to the journey.

One takeaway from the long chronological sweep is that the reliability and security of publishing business models, while obviously important to publishers, doesn’t have a direct or clear relationship with the quality of news or vitality of news ecosystems. The histories and the economics of then and now are different of course. But when newspaper publishers got literal monopolies they tended to become more conservative. The news culture became more tame and inert, less vital. In some cases, this was because these were literal monopolies, granted by local or national governments, as France long had, as the Netherlands developed in the 18th century. A monopoly publisher didn’t want to rock the boat with the powers that be and endanger their business. But some of the pattern is in play when the monopolies weren’t literal ones or lacked the sanction of law.

This isn’t necessarily great news for publishers and journalists. But it’s worth considering. This is has been a terrible decade for journalism and news publishing in many ways. But has the end product gotten worse? I think there’s a decent argument that the ferocity of the competition, experimentation borne of desperation and buckets of money poured into now failed enterprises has produced a more vital news culture than existed even in the recent past. We can’t be pollyannaish about it. Publishers need to operate in the black and journalists need to get paid. More pressingly, the crisis is only really hitting now. There’s much less money for journalism today and there will be less tomorrow. But it’s worth considering the ways in which monopoly stability – which most of the 20th century news business was built on – doesn’t have an inherent relationship with the vitality of a news ecosystem.

Another point which resonated with me is the matter of news and context. This has changed a great deal from 17th and 18th century news papers, which were often filled with narrowly factual updates on treaties and battles, the arrival of ships in the harbor and so forth. But daily news still struggles with context. Yes, such and such happened. But why does it matter that it happened? What do we expect to happen next? How does it relate to the other news that happened last week? The challenge of providing narrative context, coherence through time is just as much an issue today as it was then. The nature of the problem has not changed all that much.

In any case, these are both fascinating books, both as pure history and as history with challenging and fertile comparisons to the present. They are works of history to get lost in, which are the best kind of books.

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