Bad Idea 3



Below is an actual excerpt from the introduction to my book. In thinking over the term “bookish” I recently came across another use in Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text (Chicago UP, 1993). What I love is that Illich situates this sense of bookishness in the twelfth century, well before print. I think there needs to be *much* more work done in connecting the manuscriptural and print cultures of the book that Illich’s work gestures toward. For a little while I wondered whether the term bookish was a “bad idea” in reference to early nineteenth-century Europe and North America. But as I read and reread Illich it became clear to me that Illich’s notion of “bookishness” is tied to what he calls the “Epoch of the University,” a kind of learned (even monastic) reading that is radically different from the onset of mass literacy in the nineteenth century and the shift from a practice of (theologically based) learned reading to (a secularly driven) reading for entertainment. Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten [Conversations or Entertainments of German Refugees] is in some sense the quintessential reflection on this shift. Illich’s notion of bookishness then is significantly different from my own, which depends on the introduction of a range of communicative problems that are tied to the surplus of material, the decrease of authorial control and the growing anonymity of public readership. This is also why my sense of bookishness is not tied to the emergence of print in the fifteenth century but to the cultural saturation of print in the late eighteenth century. Illich’s bookishness is also necessarily apocalyptic – soon to be replaced by “screen culture” – where my sense of bookishness is adaptable because it is principally about adaptation.
The pilgrimages, addictions, marriages and aftershocks that books provoked in the early nineteenth century not only captured the deeply intense and personal ways that books were increasingly imagined to mark us as individuals. They also highlighted how difficult and contested this process of becoming bookish truly was. Adapting to books -- becoming bibliographic subjects -- was not something that just happened, but necessitated significant reorganizations of both social and individual identities. This book is about this process of how we became bookish at the turn of the nineteenth century. It asks what we did with books and what books did to us when there were suddenly too many books.