The History of a Book by Annie Carey

There are lots of books about books but none quite like that of Annie Carey’s The History of a Book. First published in 1873, it charts the development of printing, paper-making, and bookbinding from the unique perspective of a ‘new book’ sitting in a ‘dark, dingy room’ amongst ‘several old books’ (p.9). Upon the departure of the ‘old gentleman’ who we presume to be the proprietor of these ‘auctioneer’s premises’, this collection of books spring into life in a style reminiscent of Toy Story, Brum,and Rosie and Jim! Each with their own story, they break into a spirited and somewhat odd conversation about their relative merits and limitations, with Carey ultimately championing the current era of book production through them.

In truth, after only a few pages this quirky narrative style makes Carey’s book quite a challenging read but several details certainly make it worth a look. Firstly, as a book written by a woman in the mid-nineteenth century on a technical subject, it is uncommon, although Carey herself did write several other instructional books including Autobiographies of a Lump of Coal, a Grain of Salt, a Drop of Water, a Bit of Old Iron, and a Piece of Flint. Secondly, this is a beautiful example of a Victorian cloth covered case binding. The cover is blocked in black and gold with wonderful, detailed depictions of the printing and binding process.

Inside is beautifully illustrated too. In keeping with Carey’s stance on championing modern technology, there are multiple engravings of contemporary printing and binding machinery, providing us with an interesting account of the bookbinding trade in the 1870s. One new machine featured is the guillotine or cutting-machine, used to cut edges; Carey notes ‘… this cutting of the edges is now performed by a very different machine to the old plough.’ (p.152).

Emily & Arthur Green, April 2020