Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Leah Price reviews The Book-Makers

Adam Smyth. The Book-Makers: A History of the Book in Eighteen Lives. New York: Basic Books, 2024. 400 pp.

Review by Leah Price

23 May 2024

The title of The Book-Makers might prime you to read about a printer or writer.  Neither turns out to be Adam Smyth’s protagonist. While the sixteenth-century printer Wynkyn de Worde does form the subject of the introductory chapter, the ten vignettes that follow offer exemplary lives of figures as various as a binder, a papermaker, two groups of readers who scissored up their Bibles or biographies, Benjamin Franklin (who printed fewer books than lottery tickets and ads for people fleeing enslavement), a librarian (the Jeff Bezos-like Victorian entrepreneur Charles Mudie, whose for-profit library bought up eight tons of Thomas Macaulay in a single year), a pair of feuding type designers, and (bringing us up to the present) makers and distributors of photocopied zines. As for writers, Smyth might have quoted the bibliographer Roger Stoddard’s famous dictum that “Whatever they may do, authors do not write books. Books are not written at all. They are manufactured by scribes or other artisans, by mechanics and other engineers, and by printing presses and other machines.”[1] 

While Smyth’s human-centered narrative gives more space to artisans than to engineers—this “History of the Book in Eighteen Lives” departs from the now-familiar template launched by Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects—his joyously detail-jammed narrative teaches a lot about those machines, whether they’re the paper beaters whose din his vivid prose conjures up or the car whose chassis he describes sagging under the weight of type. In his generously capacious definition of making, every interaction with a book—no matter how passive it seems, as in the case of reading, or how material it might appear, as in the case of driving—generates a new object and a new self. Although the poet and anthologist Nancy Cunard, for example, had no ambitions to publish her own writing at the press that she founded and funded, Smyth reveals the books by others that she printed as “absolutely an expression of her personality and commitments: this was self-publishing, but not as that phrase is normally understood” (p. 301)

Selfhood, in fact, animates each of these portraits, whether that self happens to be individual or collective and whether it emerges from writing or from more mundane activities whose expressive potential usually goes unnoticed (the zinemaker who in 1871 sued the US Postal Service over the definition of periodical makes for a gripping story). Smyth’s sense of printed books as a “more tentative form than we might expect” emphasizes the freedom of their users to “mark, annotate, rebind, rearrange, reformat” (p. 101). The prefix is crucial here: Smyth shows how inadequately a single publication date sums up the overlapping time frames in which books are remade. Where altered book usually designates a specific artform, the early modern readers granted new life here refuse to distinguish reading itself from altering.

As mechanized papermaking and steam printing converge with mass literacy to make mainstream book production less narrateable, these ethical and esthetic commitments force Smyth’s post-1800 chapters to pivot to eccentrics. On the heels of Mudie (whose own forgotten poetry Smyth close reads to unexpectedly poignant effect), we encounter the mudlarkers who dug up from the Thames the type that a turn-of-the-century designer had flung off a bridge to ensure that the letters would die with him, followed by Nancy Cunard “roaring with laughter” when told that only her inherited fortune saved her from having to sweep the printshop floor (p. 296). With no glimpse of the Amazon drivers or offshore proofreaders who populate recent book-historical scholarship such as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Bibliologistics: The Nature of Books Now,” manual labor recedes into metaphor: Smyth quotes Virginia Woolf describing herself and the husband with whom she operated the Hogarth Press claiming that “we work like navvies” binding E. M. Forster (p. 290).[2]

What Smyth leaves out is less salient, though, than just how much he manages to pack into a single volume. His omnivorous curiosity encompasses “paper-making and binding, typography and cut-and-paste Bibles, libraries and small presses, huge books and ephemeral ballads, collectors who couldn’t stop and publishers who produce a new book every week” (p. 3). The breathless enumerations zigzag, whiplash, slalom: the comma-separated lists that I’ve just pastiched may be the occupational hazard of a field torn between grand narratives (“A History”) and pointillist case studies (“Eighteen Lives”). This eclecticism never shies away from the violence that turns parts into a bookish whole, “folding, ordering, flattening, beating, pulling, tightening, sewing,” always fighting the tendency of words and pages to split or scatter (p. 58). Smyth’s voice manages to reconcile the vividness of self-contained biographies with the flow of a single story—or, in more material terms, the particularity of each chapter with the monumentality that his colleague Emma Smith dubs "bookhood."[3]


[1] Roger E. Stoddard, “Morphology and the Book from an American Perspective,” Printing History 9, no. 1 (1987): 1.

[2] See Matthew Kirschenbaum, “Bibliologistics: The Nature of Books Now, or A Memorable Fancy,” Post45, 8 Apr. 2020.

[3] Emma Smith, Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers (New York, 2022), p. 15.