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The Enlightenment and the Book

Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America

The Enlightenment and the Book

Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America

The late eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of intellectual activity in Scotland by such luminaries as David Hume, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, James Boswell, and Robert Burns. And the books written by these seminal thinkers made a significant mark during their time in almost every field of polite literature and higher learning throughout Britain, Europe, and the Americas. 

In this magisterial history, Richard B. Sher breaks new ground for our understanding of the Enlightenment and the forgotten role of publishing during that period. The Enlightenment and the Book seeks to remedy the common misperception that such classics as The Wealth of Nations and The Life of Samuel Johnson were written by authors who eyed their publishers as minor functionaries in their profession. To the contrary, Sher shows how the process of bookmaking during the late eighteenth-century involved a deeply complex partnership between authors and their publishers, one in which writers saw the book industry not only as pivotal in the dissemination of their ideas, but also as crucial to their dreams of fame and monetary gain. Similarly, Sher demonstrates that publishers were involved in the project of bookmaking in order to advance human knowledge as well as to accumulate profits. 

The Enlightenment and the Book explores this tension between creativity and commerce that still exists in scholarly publishing today. Lavishly illustrated and elegantly conceived, it will be must reading for anyone interested in the history of the book or the production and diffusion of Enlightenment thought.

Read an excerpt.

842 pages | 45 halftones, 16 line drawings, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2006

History: British and Irish History

Library Science and Publishing: Publishing

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


The Enlightenment and the Book is the missing link in the history of publishing. It connects the traditions of Britain and America and explains how the people and practices of the book trade shaped the very culture of intellectual tolerance that defined the Enlightenment. This is a remarkable achievement of social and intellectual history that will become a classic.”<Barbara M. Benedict, author of Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry>

Barbara Benedict

“This is a pioneering work that constitutes a really important contribution to book history and Enlightenment studies.”<Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, University of Michigan>

Elizabeth Eisenstein

“Sher provides a richly detailed map of the Scottish Enlightenment’s progress across the Atlantic, using book history as a navigational tool. Historians of the book in America will find here a wealth of new information and a fresh transatlantic perspective on the development of book publishing in the late eighteenth century.”<James N. Green, Library Company of Pennsylvania and coauthor of Benjamin Franklin, Writer and Printer>

James N. Green

“This account transforms our understanding of book-making in the Enlightenment. Sher offers an important re-examination of the processes of publication, fundamentally revising the history of author-bookseller relations in eighteenth-century Britain.”<James Raven, author of The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450–1850>

James Raven

“Richard Sher’s The Enlightenment and the Book is not just an indispensible research tool for anyone interested in the Scottish Enlightenment, but a rich, wide-ranging and beautifully researched study of how Scottish ideas spread throughout the Anglophone world.”

John Brewer, author of A Sentimental Murder: Love and Madness in the Eighteenth Century

"In 1757, when philosopher David Hume boasted that the Scots were "the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe," he was undoubtedly pitching it a bit strong. But as Sher notes in his conclusion to this mammoth and definitive work, "less than fifty years later that boast had considerably more merit than most contemporaries might have thought possible when it was first uttered." At its core, this is a painstaking investigation of how Scotland became a wellspring of Enlightenment books, an achievement Sher argues came about through the efforts of authors and publishers who shared and benefited from a complex and symbiotic relationship. The book is divided into three parts, with Part 1 focusing on the authors of Scottish Enlightenment books (e.g., John Gregory, Adam Smith), Part 2 looking at the principal publishers of these works in London and Edinburgh (e.g., Andrew Millar, William Strahan), and Part 3 examining the reprinting of these works by publishers in Dublin and Philadelphia. An appendix features seven tables that organize the data on the people and works discussed throughout. This extraordinary work of scholarship is essential for all research libraries."

Library Journal

"A major achievement."

Times Literary Supplement

"Richard Sher’s study of Edinburgh Enlightenment books is the most valuable work I have read in over a decade, and my specialty is not eighteenth-century Scotland. . . . I found it a compelling story, superbly organized and illustrated. . . .With heart, vision, and art, this tome fundamentally embodies the patriotic and enlightened campaign for Scottish learning that it celebrates."

James E. May | Eighteenth-Century Scotland

"This is an exceptional piece of work. It is both an astonishing accumulation of informative detail and a multiplicity of lively interconnected narratives of authors, books, booksellers, printers and other subjects. It is a very useful reference book, with its nearly 150 pages of tables and bibliographies; it is also an engaging and stimulating read."

Antonia Forster | Review of English Studies

"The Enlightenment and the Book triumphantly unites the study of authors with the study of texts, and forges a better understanding of the relationship between those who wrote books and those who sold them. . . . A compelling, immensely studious, and thought-provoking testament to the best that the history of the book is now able to offer."

David Allan | Library

"A work of great interest not only to those who study this period of Scottish history or literature, but also to anyone who has an abiding interest in the history of the book or bookmaking in general."  

Michael G. Cornelius | Bloomsbury Review

"Sher has sunk a deep shaft down into an extremely dense pile of sources, and his work will no doubt serve as a reference point for historians of print culture and reading practices for years to come. . . . It raises the bar to a new level for scholars of eighteenth-century Scottish thought who are serious about the cultural history of ideas and who prefer specific examples over brushstroke theorizing."

M. D. Eddy | Isis

"Discerningly illustrated, at once scholarly and accessible, this is an essential addition not only to 18th-century studies but also to the history of the book."


"Sher brings to bear an enormous wealth of learning gained through years of painstaking archival research. It is a remarkable achievement which should become required reading for eighteenth-century British cultural and social historians."

Bob Harris | H-Net Reviews

"Reading the fruits of Sher’s labour . . . is a wonderfully pleasurable--and wholly enlightening--experience. Wearing his erudition lightly, Sher not only writes in attractively accessible, and often alliterative prose, but he also displays a keen eye for the telling vignette."

Clare Jackson | Canadian Journal of History

"There is no question that this is an authoritative and rich account of the ways in which the Scottish publishing industry both arose from and helped disseminate internationally the core values of the Enlightenment. . . . This book is a remarkable feat of scholarship, and scholars will find in it a wealth of historical information and reference material. And, at the same time, Sher presents a compelling reassessment of the relationship between book history and the production of both national and cosmopolitan (and often transatlantic) exchanges."

Tilar J. Mazzeo | American Historical Review

"Book history is well served by this study, which has methodological as well as substantive claims to make. . . . This long-awaited and massive study will be consulted somewhat selectively by many, but it is nonetheless an important book."

Roger L. Emerson | Eifghteenth-Century Life

"A powerful, challenging and comprehensive study. . . . It is unquestionably a landmark contribution that will shape discussions of the Enlightenment, book history and Scottish intellectual advances for years to come."

Christopher Flint | SHARP News

"A monumental achievement"

Evan Gottlieb | Eighteenth-Century Studies

"This elegant study . . . transforms our understanding of eighteenth-century book making. It brilliantly succeeds as a fusion of the history of ideologies with the history of the material circumstances of textual production."

James Raven | The Book Collector

"If the Enlightenment in general was a phenom­enon of print, as many both then and since have claimed, then its Edinburgh incarna­tion was perhaps the clearest case in point. Richard Sher's mammoth study sets out to make that point empirically. The product of many years' dedicated researches in archives across Britain, Ireland, and the United States, it recovers in detail the myriad ways in which a major cultural 'movement,' as he calls it, could take shape and effect through the publication and circulation of books."

Adrian Johns | Journal of Modern History

"If bibliography is out, the consolation is that the history of the book is in. Richard Sher applies the concerns and research techniques of book history to the Scottish Enlightenment and he is well qualified to do it."

M.A. Box | Notes & Queries

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Author’s Note
Toward a Book History of the Scottish Enlightenment
Designs and Disclaimers
Part I. Scottish Authors in a World of Books

1. Composing the Scottish Enlightenment
            Progress through Print
            Building a Database of Scottish Enlightenment Authors and Books
2. Identity and Diversity among Scottish Authors
            The Social Contexts of Authorship
            Unity and Representation
3. The Rewards of Authorship
            Patrons, Publishers, and Places
            Copy Money and Its Uses
Part II. Publishing the Scottish Enlightenment in London and Edinburgh
4. Forging the London–Edinburgh Publishing Axis
            The Framework of Collaborative Publishing
            The Founding Publishers and Their Firms
5. The Heyday of Scottish Enlightenment Publishing
            The House of Strahan and Cadell
            Successors and Rivals
6. The Achievement of William Creech
            The Career of a Bookseller
            The Reputation of a Bookseller
Part III. Reprinting the Scottish Enlightenment in Dublin and Philadelphia 

7. The Rise and Fall of Irish Reprinting
            Publishers or Pirates?
            In the Company of Dublin Booksellers
8. Making Scottish Books in America, 1770–1784
            The Scottish Enlightenment and the American Book Trade
            The Emergence of Scottish Enlightenment Reprinting in America
9. “A More Extensive Diffusion of Useful Knowledge”: Philadelphia, 1784–1800
            Atlantic Crossings: Carey, Dobson, Young, and Campbell
            Immigrant Booksellers and Scotch Learning
            The Disintegration of the London–Edinburgh Publishing Axis
            The Pattern of Scottish Enlightenment Book History


Economic and Social History Society of Scotland: Frank Watson Book Prize

American Historical Association: Leo Gershoy Award

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