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A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand


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The history of the book is not bibliography, although it often relies on the careful description of books given by bibliographers. It is not textual criticism, although it both draws on the work of textual critics and supplies them with information. Its focus goes beyond the content of books to the book itself as an object, to its history, to the interrelated details of its gestation and production, and to its influence on readers and the world. It covers therefore an almost unlimited variety of subjects as they are touched by books, a variety illustrated in this book. So is the wealth of detail that must be investigated before anyone can confidently write 'a' history. The essays have been selected from papers presented to a conference on the history of the book in New Zealand held in Auckland in 1995 that was convened by Alan Loney. Most of them have been rewritten to a greater or less degree to suit the printed page rather than the lectern, where in some the narrative had been slotted around a collection of slides. One criterion of selection, and of the original invitations to deliver papers, was that they should not be specialists talking to other specialists. Each of the essays has a story to tell which will engage anyone with the most general interest in the topic.

The essays fall into several natural groupings. There are three on the meeting, sometimes the collision, between Māori oral tradition and the written and printed word. Jane McRae's general survey shows the complex relationship which has developed page viii over nearly two centuries in which the tradition and the book have come to depend on one another. Danny Keenan detects Māori resistance to the print medium, which he describes (though with a question mark) as an 'aversion to print'. He extends D. F. McKenzie's work on the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations to the more fundamental hapu level, at which the government's determination to record land ownership in legal documents clashed with the 'more flexible accommodations' of the oral tradition. Peter Lineham shows how rapidly the first complete translation of the Bible into Māori became sacred scripture, resulting in the almost complete rejection of the 1887 revised translation.

Two essays show the desirability to colonials of books as objects. The most surprising revelation in Donald Kerr's minutely researched study of Sir George Grey as book collector is how much he was able to acquire in New Zealand from people with similar interests. Books like pianos arrived in both their physical and their mental luggage. From the early 20th century Margery Blackman has discovered the fine leather bindings with intricate gold and blind tooling produced in Dunedin by Eleanor Joachim, who learned in London from tutors closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. The book as a tool of trade is the background of Jocelyn Cuming's essay. A heavily used and worn copy of The East India pilot, which she describes delicately conserving, included navigation charts of New Zealand and was probably used here.

The focus then shifts to authors and publishers. There are two essays on women novelists of the 1930s: Terry Sturm writes about the warfare between Edith Lyttleton (who wrote as G. B. Lancaster) and her publishers in Britain and America as she asserted her right to fair contract terms. Patrick Sandbrook traces through the long gestation and successive drafts of The godwits fiy, the parallel development and 'intertextuality' of nearly everything Robin Hyde wrote in her short but crowded literary career.

Several of the new writers of the 1930s and beyond were typographers and printers; all were aware of the aesthetic dimension of the craft. Alan Loney shows the intimate relation between writing poetry and its typography, in which as in other respects New Zealand poets were following the lead of their English contemporaries. Lawrence Jones, on Denis Glover's repudiation of 'Mulgan, Marris and Schroder', the literary establishment of the generation before his — which was a preliminary to establishing his own — page ix has made a close study of a period and people many have written about from a more patchy acquaintance.

Peter Hughes is concerned to restore the balance between Bob Lowry's well-known and stormy career through successive presses and partnerships, and the work he achieved in the course of it; and between his 'typographical excesses' and the 'equally assured works' in a more classical style. Compared with Glover and Lowry, Bob Gormack and his long-lived Nag's Head Press have been less well-known, partly, Noel Waite suggests, because he didn't take either himself or Glover too seriously. The fact that Glover, Lowry and Gormack were all typographical clowns on occasion is one thing (and the reason is worthy of study in itself), but the beauty of most of their work is something else.

There are two essays which, although widely separated in time, are both about learning to read in specific social contexts. Describing an illustration in a medieval Book of Hours, of 'St Anne teaching the Virgin to read' (relating to New Zealand because it is in the Reed collection in the Dunedin Public Library), Elizabeth Eastmond links it both to the growing literacy of middle-class women in the Middle Ages, and to images of learning to read she has found on the Internet. Anne Else, on the Janet and John series, is firmly anchored in New Zealand. She shows how these books exactly suited the aspirations of the 1950s but became progressively less relevant to succeeding decades.

Finally, in a subversive and provocative essay, Roderick Cave warns against looking at what was happening in New Zealand in isolation from what was happening elsewhere, especially in other colonial societies, and against allowing the history of the book to become a hobby divorced from history in general. This is a salutary reminder of the complex relationship of the book and history, which goes beyond even the cataclysmic effects of printing and books on social, religious and political life in the century or two after their arrival.


In writing of the growing literacy of the middle classes in the Middle Ages, when every home had to have a Book of Hours, Elizabeth Eastmond points directly to the invention and spread of printing. The strain which the demand for books put on the resources for inscribing them by hand was the reason printing page x from movable metal type was so readily taken up and spread with such extraordinary rapidity. When she introduces the electronic media she carries the story on to where many do not want to go.

In September 1999 the Government Statistician sent shivers down a good many spines by revealing that the 1999 New Zealand official yearbook would be available only on the Internet. This seemed to be definitive evidence of the feared Death of the Book. (More immediately it was evidence of the commercial model imposed on government departments.) According to the report in the New Zealand Herald of 21 September, 'Statistics NZ said it had been unable to negotiate an arrangement for the book to be printed. It had borne the cost of preparing the contents, but had wanted a publisher to bear the cost of printing and distribution. GP Publications, which published the 1998 yearbook, did not want to do so this year. Statistics NZ says it is keen to print a yearbook for the millennium and is looking at sponsorship and other arrangements to defray the cost.'

The New Zealand Herald headed its editorial the following day, 'When a book is not a book'. The Department, it said, 'has an obligation to ensure that all the details that make us what we are will be found in forms to which all New Zealanders have access. One of the forms is a book, an object with print on paper, between two covers, readily available for scientific research or casual perusal. It may exist only in every library in the land, but we need to have such a book to hold in our hands and say: this is New Zealand.' There are signs here of that attachment to the form of the book, to its look, weight and even smell, which technocrats despise as sentimentally Luddite.

Len Cook, the Government Statistician, was more positive in a letter published on 29 September, in response to the editorial. He undertook that there would be a millennium Yearbook in 2000, 'and I expect one at least every second year afterthat. However the market for books is affected by at least two trends, one being the volume of up-to-date information we can now deliver at minimal cost through the Internet, and secondly the variety of other reference books now available.' But he also said, 'If we are to continue [publication in book form] we need people to keep on buying it. For most of the decade the sales of the Yearbook were around 5000 a year. About 10,000 sold in 1990 but that plummeted to 2000 last year.' Citing the 1990 Yearbook is a red herring: it was a sesqui-centennial souvenir with historical summaries and photographs. Its page xi sale was a one-off. Nevertheless the decline in average sales is significant.

The delivery of up-to-the-minute statistics is in fact one field in which the Internet is undoubtedly superior to the printed book. The Yearbook is often outdated by the time it appears. Mr Cook's intention to print a book at least every two years may not survive a further decline in sales, and a clear demonstration that the latest statistics are not last year's or the year before's but last week's, will probably ensure that decline. Even if 'every library in the land' continued to buy it, every publisher knows there are just too few libraries to sustain a publication by themselves.

The sentimental attachment to the book is not enough. There is a more cogent question to be asked. If the Yearbook is available only on the Net, how long will each version stay there? For every edition of the Yearbook leaves a legacy of itself, in the year-by-year rows in public libraries, or even the odd copies on private shelves, 'for specific research or casual perusal'. It is essential for the historian; it is gives the casual browser the raw taste of a period.

The advent of printing and the book must have been equally unwelcome to scribes and connoisseurs of illumination. Its unintended, unforeseen consequences were only beginning to be explored in the 20th century. One of the greatest of them was in giving ordinary readers a sense of history. Before the printed book there was the present and there was a semi-legendary past. Some of the specifics, the ways in which one period and one place differed from another, were known to some scholars, but books were needed to make them widely known. The process began remarkably quickly. The chief difference between Chaucer's dealings with the past and Shakespeare's historical plays is that Shakespeare had more books to read. As books accumulated in libraries and were used to write more books, the sense of the past as a foreign but discoverable country spread. This depended not only or even primarily on 'history books', but on books (including fiction) recording an author's present, in details which the author (however consciously writing for posterity) would often think nothing of, because they were taken for granted.

The development and influence of the Internet is certain to be equally unintended and unpredictable. Anything predicted about it now, even by knowledgeable people, may be laughable in 50 years or even 10. But at this time the question is whether the Internet has the capability of recording its own history. What is page xii certain is that the book recorded and preserved its own history even when nobody intended it. Now that this history is seen to be a key in many respects to understanding history and literature in general, manuscript sources are being sought for and mined, but the primary resource is still the book itself.