The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 4
Jul 1985


Johannes Pedersen. The Arabic Book. Translated by Geoffrey French, edited with an introduction by Robert Hillenbrand. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Reviewed by Michele V. Cloonan
Doctoral student, School of Library & Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana.

Most renders will find Pedersen's work a useful reference source for general information on Arabic books. Published in 1946 as Den Arabiske Bog, this book was translated into English only last year. Such a time lag is regrettable; by waiting so long footnotes and bibliography required extensive updating, and the impact of the original has probably been lost. Also, Hillenbrand's introduction sometimes reads more like an apologia than a cohesive essay of recent scholarship.

The scope of Pedersen's work is surprisingly wide, covering the writing and transmission of books (including the role of libraries), scribes and booksellers, writing materials, calligraphers and calligraphy, book painting and bookbinding. There are also brief chapters on books before Islam, as well as printed books. The work has been written as concisely as a good reference work should; such brevity, however, must sometimes give way to detail. For the render who seeks such detail, this work must be regarded as only an introductory source. The introduction and bibliography will lead the reader to more appropriate sources.

Still, the issue of brevity aside, Pedersen sometimes pushes aside technical details in a rather clumsy way. In the chapter on bookbinding, for example, the following comparisons are made between European and Arabic binding styles:

The loose spine, universally used in Europe for the last few centuries, was not employed, of course, and because of the special methods of the Muslims, the spine of the cover is not divided by the thick transverse bands that are a feature of European bookbinding. (p. 104)

The footnote fails to lead the reader in a more useful direction; Hillenbrand should have cited Bosch, Carswell and Petherbridge, Islamic Bindings and Bookmaking (Chicago, 1981), or Richard Ettinghausen, "Near Eastern Book Covers and their Influence on European Bindings," Ars Orientalis III (1959). (This brings me to another grievance: Hillenbrand's footnotes tend to comprise personal observations rather than facts.) Binding historians will also be disappointed by the way that Pedersen glosses over sewing, headbanding, tooling and leatherworking, preferring instead to discuss the stylistic aspects of book covers. This is a bias that must be recognized from the outset.

As already mentioned, Hillenbrand could have made better use of his addenda to Pedersen' s footnotes and bibliography. For exammple, the Ettinghausen article cited above is not included at all, and although the Bosch/Carswell/Petherbridge work appears in the bibliography, Hillenbrand makes no mention of this important study in his introduction. In fact, he dismisses the chapter on bookbinding as follows:

In the more specialized field of bookbinding, where technical factors.., had already been adequately treated in earlier works, Pedersen's summary of existing knowledge has not been seriously invalidated in the interim. (p. xvi)

One night just as well argue that Pedersen has not given us much material to invalidate.

Other omissions in the bibliography include P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs and Dard Hunter, Papermaking: the History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (to supplement pp. 60-67.)

Happily, Hillenbrand did include Richard Ettinghausen, Arab Painting, Esin Atil, Art of the Arab World, and Cary Stuart Welch, Wonders of the Age.

For the reader who seeks a little information on a variety of topics, this book is worthwhile. However, the reader who expects a comprehensive discussion of any of these topics should be prepared to look further.

Reviewed Elsewhere

Bookbinding in America 1680-1910 is reviewed by Hannah French (124 Washington Rd., Rye, NH 03870) in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 78(3) 1984, p. 373-377. She is Emeritus Research Librarian in Charge of Special Collections, Wellesley College Library. She wishes more use had been made of rubbings, as was done in the Papantonio catalog of American bindings, especially where photos do not show the tooling clearly; however, this volume does include cloth bindings, which the Papantonio catalog had ruled out. She lists four subjects which this catalog suggests for further study, including that of American women binders inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

Available for Review

Recent Advances in Leather Conservation. Proceedings of a Refresher Course Sponsored by FAIC, June 1984, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Sonja Fogle, ed.; Toby Raphael and Katherine Singley, asst. ads. $10 plus shipping, till Aug. 31; $15 plus shipping thereafter. Order from AIC, 3545 Williamsburg Lane MW, Washington, DC 20008.

A "Guide for Book Reviewers" was printed in the June 1984 issue of AN on p. 43. Copies will be sent on request.

 [Contents]  [Search]  [Abbey]

[Search all CoOL documents]