Book Review

McKenzie, D.F. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

The burgeoning of scholarly attention to early modern print culture is evidenced by D. F. McKenzie’s Panizzi lectures at the British Library, collected and published as Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. These lectures offer a deft, subtle and polished defense of an expanded understanding of “bibliography,” the first term in the title of the book, as most fully realized through a “sociology of texts,” the final phrase of the title. For McKenzie bibliography enables a means of studying the history of texts that not accessible to a host of other disciplines: literary criticism, history, library science, etc. Bibliography, for example, can study the way “form effects meaning” (13), without the disciplinary bias McKenzie does not so much define in abstract terms as locate in all the editing projects he calls into question. Thus, McKenzie offers an elegant analysis of how William K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley misquote William Congreve’s prologue to The Way of the World (by dropping two commas and changing a crucial word) in such way as to reverse Congreve’s sense; thus they enact the assault upon authorial intention their essay advocates. McKenzie is not interested in an essentialist project to reconstruct the author’s intention using rigorous bibliography. Yet he wants fidelity to the text shaped by the author and his/her many collaborators to constitute one pole of authority in a sociology of texts. McKenzie cleaves to the meanings he finds in Congreve’s text because McKenzie accepts the logic of a famous passage he quotes from Areopagitica: that a book is a “viol” that “preserves” “the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect which bred them” (31). But McKenzie qualifies that project of gaining access to authorial intention this way: “Milton’s concept of the book and of an author’s presence within it represents only one end of a bibliographical spectrum. The counter-tradition of textual transformation, of new forms in new editions for new markets, represents the other. A sociology of texts would comprehend both. It would also extend their application to the scholarship of non-book texts” (39). These lectures are scattered with vivid examples of the way the diverse forms of texts express meaning: from Joyce’s additions to his text in page proofs, so as to exploit the arbitrary numerology arising from what page number a passage appears on, to the particular signs (neither simply writing or pictures, but something else) put on the Treaty of Waitangi by Moiri chiefs in New Zealand in 1835. Many who study print culture, and other forms of media study, will take issue with McKenzie’s way of envisioning an expanded bibliography as a sociology of texts. But this powerful position statement will be required reading for those wanting to chart a different path.

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