Bibliophiles Rejoice

History of the Book in Canada Volume One: Beginnings to 1840

A review of History Of The Book In Canada Volume One: Beginnings To 1840 by Edited By Patricia Lockhart Fleming Et Al

Published on April 1, 2005

History Of The Book In Canada Volume One: Beginnings To 1840
Edited By Patricia Lockhart Fleming Et Al

University of Toronto Press

In 1997 a team of Canadian historians, librarians, and literary scholars joined researchers around the world studying print culture and began the history of the book for Canada. Volume One is the first in a three-volume set. (A French-language edition is published simultaneously by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal.)

The first thing the reader notices about this volume is its heft – it has 400 pages of text, and another 150 pages of notes, bibliography, and index. Then there’s the smooth acid-free paper and the airy Cartier Book font, Canada’s first roman typeface. It seems eminently suitable to have this authoritative book on print such a tactile delight.

This is a reference book par excellence, starting as it does with the very beginnings of print in Canada – the aboriginals’ wampum and symbolic representations. The breadth of material is ambitious, as “print,” for the purpose of this project, includes books, newspapers, and magazines, as well as personal libraries, writers, readers, and printing in Aboriginal languages, German, and Gaelic. The book examines “the role of print in the political, religious, intellectual, and cultural life of the colonies that eventually became Canada.”

Although this book is the definitive reference work for Canadian bibliophiles, it is written in pleasurable, non-academic language accessible to the general reader. Anyone familiar with the period covered will recognize many familiar names – Fleury Mesplet (founder of the precursor to The Gazette), Benjamin Franklin, Susanna Moodie, and Thomas Chandler Haliburton. There are a host of unfamiliar names too, and, since early writers often used a pseudonym, some who will never be known except through their works.

An interesting feature is the use of case histories. In the chapter on popular books, the subsection “Music” is followed by a study of “Music and La Minerve.” La Minerve was a Montreal biweekly which printed the first music in a Canadian periodical on September 19, 1831. Four lines of music accompany a patriotic song entitled “La Parisienne.” A further six stanzas of text are spread across three columns. The case history goes on to explain in detail why and how this music was acquired and published.

There are odd stories connected with books. One of the first topics covered is the writing and publishing of expedition literature. Franklin’s ill-fated expedition was typical: Franklin brought along his library of books and charts, one of which was Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from the Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean. It has been surmised that when Franklin and his men started straggling across the tundra in hope of reaching Fort Enterprise, they chose to carry the lighter-weight octavo edition of Hearne’s book, rather than the larger quarto first edition.

Yet the map in the octavo showed Hearne’s return route across the Barrens differently from the first edition’s map. The discrepancy could have confused Franklin, whose men suffered more than one delay, and contributed to the number of deaths. Certainly the matter of a book’s size bears materially on this dramatic possibility.

The period covered by this volume was a tumultuous one, with the French and American Revolutions, and rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada. The importance of print in the service of both the establishment and those who wanted political change was incalculable. Beginnings covers this restless era with great skill and erudition. Let’s hope that Volume Two is not far behind. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.



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