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Andrew Piper, Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age.

Andrew Piper, Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. xvi + 303, 24 [pounds sterling].

Dreaming in Books is a study of 'how we became bookish at the turn of the nineteenth century', picking up the familiar theme of the explosion in print production in the Romantic era (as conventionally defined) and asking 'what we did with books and what books did to us when there were suddenly too many books'. As such it inserts itself into a burgeoning field of criticism and scholarship inspired by the sprawling discipline of book history, which has invigorated Romantic studies as much as any period-based specialism. What lend Piper's book its distinctiveness are, firstly, its comparative or European perspective, which cuts across the nationalistic foundations of most large history-of-the-book projects; secondly, its concentration on literary characteristics rather than material history, or rather its focus upon scenes of communication within texts to show how Romantic literature made sense of the 'bibliographic environment' in which it emerged; and thirdly, its somewhat overbearing insistence on drawing lessons from the past for the present--using the Romantics' trials and tribulations in adapting to the pervasive medium of the book as a guide to our own vicissitudes in the digital era.

It is the latter objective that explains Piper's decision to organise his study around six activities or practices--networking, copying, processing, sharing, overhearing, and adapting--that may seem to belong more to our modern communications era, but which Piper argues have instructive origins or parallels in the culture of Romanticism. In elaborating this thesis he undoubtedly sheds valuable light on neglected areas of literary production. It is questionable whether any serious scholar still takes the view (as Piper implies) that Romantic creativity was defined as an incorporeal, spontaneous mental event in contradistinction to the mundane realities of book-making, but his detailed case-studies of writers for whom the material book became 'a vital source of creative energy and literary innovation' are nevertheless quirky and thought-provoking. He contends, for instance, that the complicated publication history of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Travels make it resemble a 'network' rather than a unitary work--the unstable outcome of 'a publishing program that continually transgressed and expanded the work's boundaries.' With specific reference to Hoffmann, he explores the proliferation of collected editions in the Romantic period and how these negotiated the competing demands of textual integrity and originality, producing 'sameness out of heterogeneity and heterogeneity ... out of such sameness.' Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is the main focus of a particularly interesting chapter on Romantic editing, a practice that blended fidelity to sources with modernisation and improvement, and which was shortly to give way to more recognisably modern critical procedures. Popular miscellanies like The Keepsake, which encouraged handwritten dedications, annotations, and supplementary writings, are viewed as early forays in shared authorship, while the importance of translation within the Romantic 'bibliocosmos' also receives welcome attention, albeit with some shaky generalisations about women translators challenging received ideas of literary property. The final chapter on illustrated books is the most frustrating, with much (perhaps fittingly) convoluted discussion of wavy lines as signifiers of 'a new adaptive mentality,' capturing 'the precarious emergence of intermedial knowledge.'

In each branch of this variegated study, a small number of literary examples--episodes, motifs, narratological features--are made to bear a huge load of literary and cultural theory, typically as markers of a self-reflexive concern with issues in the contemporary bibliographic environment. After a while, this procedure begins to wear thin, and seems peculiarly vulnerable to the Stanley Fish argument that it is the interpretive framework that produces the textual 'facts,' rather than the facts of the text that license the interpretation. I must confess, too, that the more Piper insisted that the Romantics' problems and anxieties anticipated our own, that their experience of bibliographic excess, repetition, mediation, de-individualisation and the like foreshadowed the convulsions of our allegedly post-Gutenberg era, the more I was disposed to withhold assent. Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to deny that this is an impressive, challenging, deeply researched study, which deserves a wide audience among scholars of European Romanticism.

Robin Jarvis

University of the West of England
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Author:Jarvis, Robin
Publication:Literature & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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