Form and Meaning in the History of the Book: Selected Essays (The British Library Studies in the History of the Book)

Murray Simpson (National Library of Scotland)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 September 2004




Simpson, M. (2004), "Form and Meaning in the History of the Book: Selected Essays (The British Library Studies in the History of the Book)", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 7, pp. 382-382.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Nicolas Barker has been a leading authority in the study of the history of the book in Britain for over 40 years. His enormous industry and energy, and the depth and breadth of his knowledge, is almost incredible, and I for one have been lost in admiration of his abilities for many years. He seems to know everything about anything related to books, whether fifteenth century Greek printing, literary forgeries, great book collectors, German seventeenth century book illustration, or recent theories on the role of the book in society. You name it, he has written about it, or so it seems. Since 1965 he has been editor of The Book Collector and in issue after issue in that journal he has presented, as well as articles, elegantly‐written and authoritative editorials on a dazzling range of topics. Often these are extended analyses of recent books, many of them European foreign‐language productions. Barker presents their frequently complex arguments in a lucid, thought provoking and stimulating way. The great knowledge behind his writing is always apparent, but lightly worn. It is truly the art which conceals art.

This past year has seen the award of an OBE and his 70 birthday. The British Library, where Barker had a distinguished career, has commemorated the anniversary by presenting a selection, chosen by the author himself, of occasional papers. Following a short introduction by Alan Bell, there are 40 essays, representing four decades of scholarship, and comprising just over 500 pages of text. The earliest essay is from 1960, a tongue in cheek article from The Book Collector purporting seriously to assess classics in literature in monetary terms. A total of 21 essays are from that journal, and the latest essay chronologically, from 2001, is also from The Book Collector, on the eighteenth century Irish book trade. Two essays date from the 1960s, 14 from the 1970s, ten from the 1980s, 11 from the 1990s and one from 2000. Contributions to a wide range of journals, books and festschriften are also represented. Barker states that they “have been reprinted as they originally stood, with the exception of a few additions and corrections”. I have only been able to find one slip: the great benefactor of Glasgow University is William Hunter, not Joseph (p. 185).

The groupings into seven sections show something of the range of the material:

  1. 1.

    “Books and texts, medieval and later”.

  2. 2.

    “Typography and early printing”.

  3. 3.

    “History of the book”.

  4. 4.


  5. 5.

    “Books and people”.

  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    “Libraries – or who cares about old books?”

There is also a “Coda” section, comprising one essay entitled “The edible book” (a witty review of two publications of the mid‐1970s). Within these headings is a feast of entertainment, education, erudition, excitement, whether about the transmission of latin legal texts in the renaissance, or fifteenth century bindings, or Sterne's library, or the gripping story of forgery and murder in Mormon Utah in the 1980s.

This publication should be essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the history of the book. Physically, it is a solidly elegant and strongly bound production. There is a selective index.

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