This relatively new discipline extends some of the techniques of bibliography, which were discussed in Chapter 3, into a very large and stimulating subject indeed. This is the historical study of the book in its economic, social and cultural contexts. The questions asked by this discipline are commonly much broader than those posed by conventional bibliography. For instance, how did the economic, technical and social context in which the book was produced affect its development, its content, its appearance and its reception? How did the book as a communicator of ideas, values and experience affect the society in which it operated? Such questions highlight a fundamental distinction between books and almost any other artefact produced by society, a distinction which makes the historical study of books such a pressing and important subject. Unlike tables, toys, bread, guns, shoes, carpets or cars, books are intended to have specific intellectual and emotional effects on those who read them. Books can be designed to influence, and sometimes to change, the economic, social or cultural circumstances in which they were produced. There is thus a feedback loop built into the relationship between society and its books which ensures that one generation of books will have an influence on the context in which the next generation of books appears, and so on. The ‘history of the book’ is, perhaps, something of a misnomer, for the discipline could not, and does not, restrict itself to the study of books alone. Any printed text – whether it be a book, pamphlet, newspaper, magazine, handbill, broadsheet, printed form or raffle ticket – can come within the notice of the book historian. Some of these examples may sound trivial until one begins to realise, for instance, how much of a local printer’s time in the eighteenth century would have been taken up with the printing of legal forms for the local magistrate, or how much of a nineteenth-century jobbing printer’s output
would be in the form of programmes for events and advertising posters. The study of these printed ephemera, themselves an important aspect of the ‘history of the book’, has much to tell us of the way in which print intruded into the daily life of people who wouldn’t even have thought of picking up novel or reading a poem.