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Laura Mandell - Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age. Reviewed by Lauren Schachter

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 - 12:44

Laura Mandell, Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015). 240 pp., 4 b&w and 14 color illus. (Hdbk., $90.00; ISBN 9781118274552).

Lauren Schachter

University of Chicago

I read a digital edition of Laura Mandell’s 2015 Breaking the Book: Print Humanities in the Digital Age, so her advertisement’s request that any reviews of it be “sew[n] or staple[d] . . . into the cover” gave me pause, not only because it would be difficult for me to comply, but also because this difficulty illustrates the transitional medial environment that interests Mandell (xiii). Each chapter of her self-described manifesto examines “something one can do with a book” (writing, reading, critiquing) through the lens of “the change from coterie to mass-print to digital culture” (xiii). Moving skilfully across historical periods and topics from language philosophy to psychoanalysis to pedagogy, Breaking the Book advocates for a self-critical examination of book culture with the goal of carrying the best of the print humanities forward into “a brave new digital world” (xii). Since we have too often been blind to the ways the printed codex has shaped the form and content of our thinking, especially with regards to the assumed authority, political potency, or durability of printed words, Mandell commits to “break[ing] open the book to look at the machinery operating inside” (150) and asks what “might predispose us to attentiveness and resistance in the medium itself” (xi).

Disassembled, the book, according to Mandell, has three parts: “Pre-Bound,” “Bound,” and “Unbound,” which refer to the approximate before, during, and after of the mass-printed book’s ascendancy. Part I argues that the medium of print has been bound up, so to speak, in the promotion of an anti-common approach to language. Contributors to the seventeenth-century print journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, theorized a fixed and enduring language, one which, according to Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society (1667), would “[deliver] so many things, almost in an equal number of words” (qtd. in Mandell 5). On Mandell’s account, this view of language is made possible, in part, by the precarious medium, the “pre-bound” article, in which Sprat and other Royal Society writers worked (these articles were only bound into book form on an annual basis). The permanent language that Sprat imagined for the Royal Society, therefore, might also be described as “printed thing-language,” well-suited to science but allergic to the vagaries of “living language” (54). But it is problematic, Mandell argues, when print language is assumed to be the only kind that matters for the production of knowledge; she adds an explicit media angle to Wittgenstein’s argument for the intellectual value of ordinary language. Despite truisms to the contrary, “language is not a medium” but an abstraction that takes various material forms (60). If we “[put] ‘print’ back into the picture we have of language,” Mandell suggests, we will see that words are always subject to inflection by their medium—whether the medium is an e-book or a manuscript (61).

Although at times Breaking the Book approaches technological determinism—the print medium can seem too much on the hook for book criticism’s limitations and biases—it is more than worthwhile to assess the extent to which print has been integral to habits of thought in the humanities, especially as we live increasingly digital lives both inside and outside of the academy. Part II hypothesizes two responses to mass-print and the alienation from the authorial hand that it conveys, both visually (i.e., more standardized title pages) and in terms of circulation (shift away from coteries). First, what if the mass-printed book created the conditions in the eighteenth century for communication by way of sympathetic identification (à la Adam Smith) with others’ “cases”? Here, Mandell invokes a range of connotations for “case,” from the medical case history and its proximity to the novel’s remarkable but nonetheless relatable “histories” to the various material cases involved in the construction of a book—upper and lower case type, bookbinding as “case,” and text as a series of case-imprints. Second, Mandell suggests that the “print authority” of the first mass-printed literary critical journals (like the Edinburgh Review) in fact contributed to their failure at satire, at least as the genre was practiced by Swift and Pope. So, it is not ER editor Francis Jeffrey who speaks but “the objective stance of the printed book itself . . . its tones echoing in eternity because physically unheard and distributed far and wide enough that no mere accident to matter will erase its edicts” (127). Mandell moves deftly from Jeffrey’s moment to today’s examples of “the criticism of moral condescension,” which affects to politicize academic discourse when really it belies the neglect to consider “one’s own print position” in the first place (127). I find Mandell’s manifesto most exciting when she thinks about media blindness in relation to specific genres, since what she calls “print somnolence” often looks like rote adherence to a genre (135).

Breaking the Book concludes with a chapter on the errors of book criticism and how we might avoid repeating them in digital environments. Mandell’s vision for the future of the digital humanities is coloured by an intriguing nostalgia for the copiousness of the commonplace book (the sewn- or stapled-in review) at the same time that it is (also) a hope for collaborative digital scholarship that would give “living language” new purchase: “[W]hat if demands by me and others for evidence or retraction could form a piece of the essay itself, and what if the essay itself, with all the contestation encompassing it, were available to readers immediately, through a live window, in any future citations of it?” (155).