Pet Book Report #4: The Book Business

The readings this week have been helpful for thinking about how my pet book fit into the larger book trade and the different people that helped produce it.

Michael Suarez’s discussion of printers/publishers in “The Business of Literature: The Book Trade in England from Milton to Blake” inspired me to look into the printer of my pet book more. All I needed to do was a quick Google search of “Carey and Co printer Philadelphia” to find the information I was looking for because it turns out that my pet book was printed by a fairly prominent printer named Mathew Carey.  Born in Ireland, he worked as a printer in Dublin and made a name for himself publishing Irish nationalist works. The British government unsurprisingly did not take kindly to this, and Carey was forced to flee to Paris, where he met Benjamin Franklin and worked in his print shop for a year (this is actually not the only connection my work has to Ben Franklin, but more of that later). Carey then went back to Ireland, got in more trouble with the British for editing Irish nationalist newspapers, and then fled to the United States once and for all, creating the printing business that produced my pet book. Carey’s success in the printing business leads me to believe that my pet book may have shared in that success.

Suarez notes that “Small, inexpensive books such as almanacs, catechisms and primers… were often produced in large edition sizes” (140) but that “schoolbooks perish much more readily than most kinds of texts” (141), so gauging popularity by surviving copies is not reliable. However, there is some other evidence to suggest that my pet book was a fairly popular text besides simply the popularity of Mathew Carey. For example, in my archival visits I have discovered that in addition to The Philadelphia Vocabulary, James Greenwood also wrote The London Vocabulary. The desire to bring this British text to Philadelphia suggests that it was a successful text, at least in England. Furthermore, the copy of The London Vocabulary that I saw was the “twenty-first edition.” Now, Suarez notes that “Edition statements on title pages — ‘the ninth edition’ — are not on their own reliable evidence of how well a book was selling… Booksellers… had a tendency to make sales seem more impressive by skipping numbers when counting editions” (141). However, even with skipping numbers a significant amount of editions would have already had to have been printed to get to twenty-one.

Another reason that I think my pet book was popular has to do with Benjamin Franklin. While reading his autobiography, I was shocked to see him mention the author of my pet book: “I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s).” While Ben Franklin couldn’t have been talking about my pet book specifically since it was published in 1787, James Greenwood published multiple grammars in addition to The Philadelphia Vocabulary. Furthermore, the fact that he simply says “Greenwood” suggests that James Greenwood’s grammars were so popular that everyone would automatically known what he was talking about even though he only uses a last name to identify the work.

So the author of my pet book is a much bigger figure than I had previously thought. While Greenwood was not an American living during the Antebellum Era (he was in fact British and died when the U.S. was still known as the colonies), Jackson’s reading still helped me think about Greenwood as an author. Jackson discusses the distinction between living for writing and living off writing, and I think Greenwood falls into the second category. Greenwood doesn’t seem to have written anything else besides grammars and on the title page is identified as “Author of the English Grammar, and late Sur-Master of St. Paul’s School.” While being an author is part of his identity, it seems like he had more of passion for teaching than writing since grammars are, after all, didactic in nature.

Switching now to the book as a physical object, Price discusses other uses for books besides reading. For my pet book, I think the obvious alternate use is for writing. When looking at the handwriting in the book, it would first appear that the purpose of the writing is simply to identify the owner of the book. However, there is a whole diagram drawn into my pet book, as well as random letters, shapes, and doodles. Furthermore, the owner would only need to write his name once if he was simply staking a claim on the book, but he writes it over and over again. Therefore, I think the writing is simply practice and the diagram perhaps a way to process learning, although it seems completely unrelated to learning Latin. Maybe, then, the drawings were more related to boredom during a dull Latin lesson. Price, like myself, would be incredibly excited to see all of these traces left in the book since she notes that “any reception historian will sooner or later be maddened by the low proportion of traces left in books that are verbal” (19). However, even with all of the writing in my book, it is still difficult to do more than simply make guesses at motives and reactions of the original readers.

To end, I want to address one last thought from Price. She brings up an interesting question in her introduction: “Do traces (verbal or nonverbal) left by past users increase or decrease the value of books (commercial or sentimental)?” (6). While the traces don’t increase the monetary value of The Philadelphia Vocabulary, they are certainly what drew me to this particular book and increase it’s value in my eyes. However, I don’t think it is purely sentimental value, as Price suggests. I think there is also an educational value and historical value as well.


Works Cited

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Web.

Jackson, Leon. “From the Profession of Authorship to the Business of Letters.” The Business of Letters: Authorial Economics in Antebellum America. Stanford University Press, 2008.

Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Suarez, Michael. “The Business of Literature: The Book Trade in England from Milton to Blake.” A Companion to Literature from Milton to Blake. Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

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