G. Thomas Tanselle, Descriptive Bibliography.

Cover for Tanselle, Descriptive Bibliography book showing an edited typewritten page in the background

G. Thomas Tanselle, Descriptive Bibliography. Charlottesville: The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2020. 609 pp + reprint of A Sample of Bibliographical Description with Commentary, ISBN: 978-1883631192, US$60.

Descriptive Bibliography embodies G. Thomas Tanselle’s lifelong dedication and significant, enviable contributions to the discipline; and its content amounts to a cornucopia of bibliographical delights for those seeking to learn, reinforce or revisit what descriptive bibliography is and its “role as history and biography” (page 28), such as from aspiring higher-degree students, early- to mid-career scholars, to researchers from adjacent disciplines, such as library cataloguing, whose work exists tangentially to, or intermixes with, that of bibliographers. The book’s objective to “offer a comprehensive guide to descriptive bibliography” (page ix), though limited to printed books, is without doubt (and, given the author, predictably) achieved. 

While Tanselle implicitly celebrates his forty-year bibliographical scholarship with this publication, he acknowledges in his preface Fredson Bowers’s Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949) as the “fullest previous treatment” of descriptive bibliography and that his collection of essays is not just a replacement but also a companion to Bowers’s Principles (page ix). Where Tanselle departs from Bowers is his “rethinking and redefinition” of basic concepts such as ideal copy, and provision of a “simpler and more logical system for noting inserted leaves in collation formulas” and “more detailed suggestions for describing paper, type, non-letterpress material, and publishers’ bindings”; furthermore, Tanselle organises his discussion according to principles and practices relevant to all periods of book production, rather than Bowers’s temporal segregation according to the fifteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth–twentieth centuries (page x). Besides the preliminaries (preface) and end matter (appendix and index), Tanselle’s Descriptive Bibliography is divided into two sections comprising essays previously published in bibliographical journals from 1966 to 2006; these sections are thematically, not chronologically, arranged and all essays conclude with postscripts. The first section includes five essays “on general topics”: “A Description of Descriptive Bibliography” (1992); “Descriptive Bibliography and Library Cataloguing” (1977); “Ideal Copy” (1980); “Edition, Impression, Issue, and State” (1975); “Tolerances” (1968). The second section features eight essays and is more bibliographically specific, addressing components of physical books and their production: “Transcription and Collation” (1985); “Format” (2000); “Paper” (1971); “Typography and Layout” (1966); “Typesetting and Presswork” (1999); “Non-Letterpress Material” (1982); “Publishers’ Bindings, Endpapers, and Jackets” (1967–2006); and “Arrangement” (1984). Included in the appendix are a sample bibliography description with commentary (also supplied as hard-copy reprint) and a comprehensive bibliography of literature of descriptive bibliography.

Tanselle declares in his preface that his republished essays “do not call for revision, in the sense that [he still believes] in the approach and suggestions expressed in each one” and therefore that his essays are presented “in unrevised form, except for some corrections and stylistic alterations” (page x). However, he acknowledges that much scholarship has been published since his essays’ publication and that “knowledge of that work would usefully supplement [his] essays” (page x–xi). This is where Tanselle’s postscripts come into play as each enumerates and critiques the subsequent scholarship; they also afford a means to extend his previous work and/or engage further with both the topic concerned and contemporary debate. He writes: “[sometimes] I have to disagree with points that have been made since my essays were written, and at other times I am glad to welcome ideas that are valuable additions to what I wrote” (page xi). I admit I was initially disconcerted by Tanselle’s avowal that his essays did not require revision as many were published forty years ago and, as his postscripts reveal, significant scholarship has been conducted since. Nevertheless, I appreciate how each of Tanselle’s essays also function as a textual artefact that forms a vital part of an ongoing history of, and dialogue about, descriptive bibliography.

Readers are informed in the preface that Tanselle’s postscripts were originally published as “Notes on Recent Work in Descriptive Bibliography” in Studies in Bibliography in 2018. These notes have been “only slightly altered” for this collection to allow for supplementary commentary. Tanselle uses the postscript forum effectively. As aforementioned, subsequent notable scholarship is listed and variously assessed, reinforcing readers’ understanding of Tanselle’s intimacy with the subject matter. However, this critique could often be perceived to result in, or indeed embody, a verbal stoush that invites response, albeit perhaps a rhetorical one. In “Description of Bibliography: Postscript”, for example, his assessment of The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010) edited by Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen and The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015) edited by Leslie Howsam appears deliberately divisive: “One might expect that the Oxford and Cambridge ‘companions’ to book history would offer dependable brief introductions to descriptive bibliography, but this is unfortunately not the case” (page 30). 

Tanselle appears consistently more favourable of certain scholars, such as Brian J. McMullin, whose “Some Notes on Paper and Format”, Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand Bulletin, 28.4 (2004) received the following compliment: “He summarizes my arguments and gives several illustrative examples, and I appreciate his careful consideration of the points I made … His discussion does not require any modification in my essay, but readers will benefit from following his line of thinking about specific books” (“Format: Postscript”, page 256). Tanselle also, as previously mentioned, extends his previous work and further engages with the topic concerned and contemporary debate. This extension and engagement are demonstrated excellently in “Paper: Postscript” (page 291–301) and “Bindings: Patterns, Postscript” (page 462–473). For the latter, for example, Tanselle elaborates on cloth grains and marbled papers, images of which featured in his original essay, and identifies critical resources, such as databases, that would benefit contemporary researchers, namely “Publishers’ Bindings Online 1815–1930: The Art of Books” through the University of Alabama Library and the University of Wisconsin—Madison Library, and the British Library’s “Database of Bookbindings” (page 466).

As a devotee of Tanselle, who benefited from, relied on and cited his contributions in my doctorate, I felt privileged to review Descriptive Bibliography. This “comprehensive guide” is undeniably a cornucopia of bibliographical delights for all readers, no matter where in their academic journeys they reside and their knowledge and practice of descriptive bibliography. However, given the forty-year publication history, I believe that this compendium, namely the postscripts, could have been strengthened by Tanselle including present-day critical reflections about his essays as textual artefacts: where and how they, and indeed himself, reside in historical and contemporary critical debate since their first iteration.

Jocelyn Hargrave, University of Derby