Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Scottish Enlightenment and the History of the Book

As I work on my current project, I have been re-reading Richard Sher's magisterial The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America. Sher held Guggenheim and NEH fellowships to conduct research for this project, and his monograph won the 2007 Leo Gershoy Award by the AHA for the most outstanding book published in English on any aspect of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century European history. It is truly a monumental achievement.

Sher has made a habit of writing groundbreaking books. His first monograph, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment, transformed scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment, bringing to light the importance of the so-called "Moderate Literati" of Scotland, including Hugh Blair, Alexander Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, John Home, and William Robertson. The Enlightenment and the Book will surely have the same impact on scholarship pertaining to the Scottish Enlightenment and the history of the book.

I remember being fascinated with the material in The Enlightenment and the Book as I worked through my PhD dissertation on John Erskine. In fact, after reading his book, I rewrote my dissertation in order to highlight the centrality of Erskine's role as a disseminator of texts. I have been interested in the history of the book ever since. But as thorough as Rick's book is, there is very little information in it pertaining to religious authors in the eighteenth century, especially with regard to evangelical authors.

There seems to be a disconnect between scholars of the history of the book and Christianity. Historians of the book, while recognizing the influence of religious texts in the eighteenth century, do not seem to understand evangelical Christianity (a notable exception is David Hall). Conversely, historians of evangelicalism do not seem to grasp the importance of booksellers, printers, and publishers and their relationships with authors. A good example of this disconnect is with Jonathan Edwards. Despite the number of articles, dissertations, and books published about Edwards, next to nothing has been written about Edwards's printers and publishers in the eighteenth century. While M.X. Lesser and Thomas Johnson have constructed helpful bibliographical material on Edwards, what is missing is a narrative of the events surrounding the publication of his writings. The focus on Jonathan Edwards studies continues to be his theology, or, more recently, the historical context of his life.

In my next book, I hope to convince historians of Christianity to see the significance of the book trade in the eighteenth century, for without the marketing efforts of booksellers, printers, publishers, and other intermediaries, theologians like Jonathan Edwards would not have become international celebrities.

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