Book-Making

I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or not that, while writing a book, I’ve become obsessed with fast, cheap, and lazy (“efficient?”) ways to make them.

I would not have predicted, when I started doing research on Victorian books about sexual health, that so many would be composite productions of one kind or another. Many of the authors and publishers I’ve examined used previously published text as a sculptor uses clay, treating it as raw material to create new books. Some borrowed paragraphs, and even whole chapters, from their own published works when writing new books. Others indulged in lengthy, luxuriant quotation, using it as a substitute for summaries of previous work, or original descriptions of reproductive anatomy and physiology. Some cut and pasted snippets from dozens of books, articles, reports, and even advertisements to create their books. Others used parts of just one or two previously published works to update or reframe a book that they wanted to sell to a new audience.

Some of these books were incredibly audacious in their re-use of existing material. Take Marriage, Historically, Philosophically, Legally, Physiologically and Pathologically Examined (c. 1840), by “Henry Horne, M.D.,” published by “H. Smith,” a pseudonym for the pornographer William Dugdale. This book is, in large part, an unattributed abridgement of The Philosophy of Marriage, an 1837 book written by Michael Ryan, a physician to the Metropolitan Free Hospital and member of the Royal College of Physicians in London. However, the abridged text has been stripped of all of its (numerous) references to God, and combined with a chapter on contraception from the American social reformer Robert Dale Owen’s famous pamphlet on population, Moral Physiology (1831). These editorial maneuverers transformed the work into a practical—and atheistic—guide to limiting reproduction.

I often wondered over the past couple of years whether the Victorians had a name for the practice of making new books out of old ones, something akin to “scissors-and-paste,” which was often used to describe periodicals whose contents were largely sourced from other publications.[1] I asked around about it. I hunted through books and articles on scissors-and-paste journalism, plagiarism, anthologies, renovations, and copyright. I keyed phrases like “scissors-and-paste-book,” “plagiarise book,” and “compiled book” into nineteenth century newspaper databases or Google Books. Not much turned up. I had almost given up on trying to find a term for this practice when I chanced across it in Jessica DeSpain’s Nineteenth Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book (2016). They called it “book-making”. Book-making!

It’s a baggy, non-specific term, and was employed in several different contexts. Reviewers sometimes used it, as you might expect, to describe the physical process of publishing books, or to praise the design and material construction of a particular book. They often used it in the negative, to indicate a book’s originality, as in the Birmingham Daily Post‘s 1863 review of John Hanning Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Sources of the Nile, which praises the work by declaring, “a better and less book-making narrative we have rarely seen”. As this example suggests, however, “book-making” was very frequently used to describe—and sometimes to denigrate—books that were derivative, either in the sense that they were not all that original, or that they were literally made out of others. My favourite example from the latter genre is probably Thomas Lund’s outraged 1858 pamphlet “An Exposure of a Recent Attempt at Book-Making at the University of Cambridge,” which places extracts from I. Todhunter’s Algebra for the Use of Colleges and Schools (1858) next to extracts from James Wood’s Elements of Algebra (1795), to show how Todhunter lifted Wood’s work verbatim to create the work, as well as paraphrasing from Lund’s editorial notes, which were still in copyright.

Victorian discussions about book-making—and the books I’ve been looking at—have raised a lot of questions for me. How widespread was the practice (or collection of practices) that I’ve observed across different genres? What did it mean for readers? Would further study of it change the way we think about scissors-and-paste journalism? What is its relation to the histories of commonplace books, anthologies, abridgements, and other text-extraction and organisation practices? How does it relate to treatments of the book as a material object, as investigated in Leah Price’s How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012)? Or the complex, remedial media ecology that Tom Mole looks at in his recent What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (2017)? I’m writing on this more seriously these days (when I’m not, you know, working on my book), and would love it if you’d share any thoughts this brings up for you in the comments.

[1] There are a number of great projects being undertaken right now that approach scissors-and-paste journalism from different angles — see, for example, Ryan Cordell and David Smith, Stephan Pigeon, Melodee Beals, and Colette Colligan.

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