Andrew Pettegree. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. xvi + 421 pp. ISBN 978-030-0110098.When I saw The Book in the Renaissance on display at MLA, I immediately recognized it as a book I needed to take a close look at. I sent away for it by interlibrary loan as soon as I returned, but the request was canceled - this book is priced so affordably that it was cheaper for the library to buy its own copy. I’m used to academic books on early modern print history costing in the low three digits, not low two.
Now that I’ve finished reading it, I’m happy to find that The Book in the Renaissance more than justifies its place on the shelves of university libraries. It is written so clearly that undergraduate students will have no problem understanding it, while its coverage is so broad that even experienced scholars will find many new aspects of their own discipline in it. I approach the history of print from within the discipline of German Studies, and The Book in the Renaissance provided an excellent overview of what was going on elsewhere in Europe.
For the specific areas that I know in greatest detail, including the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel and the printing of astrological prognostications, I was satisfied with Pettegree’s account. For the printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle I think Christoph Reske’s Die Produktion der Schedelschen Weltchronik in Nürnberg is far superior to the source Pettegree cites, Adrian Wilson’s now dated Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle, but Wilson still remains more accessible to American readers (and above all to undergraduates who don’t read German).
But the real accomplishment of The Book in the Renaissance is how it provides a grand overview of print culture in the sixteenth century. Robert Pinsky’s review in the New York Times calls it “revisionist,” but I would instead say that it accurately represents the current state of the field and the recent contributions of leading scholars. This is not revisionist posing, but rather a fundamental rethinking of the field by its leading practitioners over several years based on a thorough and widespread review of its primary sources. Although The Book in the Renaissance has little to say about prophecies and prognostic booklets, the half-decade I’ve spent scrutinizing hundreds of obscure editions only confirms Andrew Pettegree’s approach to sixteenth-century book history. What we lose in humanist triumphalism is more than made up in the sheer drama of power politics, popular unrest, and religious dissent.
For a one-volume overview of the first 150 years of print culture, The Book in the Renaissance is the new standard.