From Little London to Little Bengal

This post is part of a series about useful books and online resources for students of book history and material culture, written by current MSc students at the University of Edinburgh.

A large concern of mine in the field of book history is the relatively small number of comprehensive studies done on print cultures in non-Western cultures. Outside of brief articles and specific examples, there has not been a lot of information (or so this amateur researcher has found) to be had about broader print cultures. The strength of Daniel E. White’s book From Little London to Little Bengal: Religion, Print, and Modernity in Early British India is its ability to provide a broad framework for continued research in the print cultures of non-Western cultures, through the specific example of India.

The book’s main assertion is that it would be illogical to look at any one print culture without also examining it in terms of global trends and the inevitable diffusion between different geographical points of interest that are tied by politics, commercial interests, colonialism, or proximity. By making the assumption that a print culture is naturally fluid and cannot be isolated, the fundamentally specific field of bibliography is opened up. This book opens and closes with narratives about cultural exile, showing how culture can be easily reproduced and imitated, and also how it can be appropriated as a source of power. Print was not just a means of recording and storing information; it was also an essential channel for maintaining senses of individuality, apartness, and in many cases, superiority.

In particular, I was struck by Chapter Two of White’s book, which focuses on how missionaries changed the print cultures of India. Of course, the interventions of missionaries in India bring up dialogues about colonialism and imperialism in themselves, but by looking at it through the lens of print cultures, we see how the agency of print can directly affect the cultures in which it’s introduced. Shipments of books from England were primarily made up of religious texts, which had to undergo a process of ‘worlding.’ As White asks the reader, what happens to books when they undergo a process of transport from one culture to its extreme opposite? In what ways is the text affected by this change in context? This materializes in the trade of idols and other pagan artifacts back to England, the profits of which were used to pay for Bibles and other religious texts to be shipped back to India. The irony being that the Bibles being sent to India were supposed to instruct readers in how to look beyond the value of material things; as the fetishization of the artifacts increased their monetary value; showing not only an interesting trade in goods between the East and the West, but how those interactions changed social ideas and values in both countries.

The book concludes with a plea from White that contemporary researchers not elevate ‘direct from the source’ ideas of authenticity over those that were born of imitation. Every artifact, particularly those of print communication, which carries the added weight of language and intention, should be examined in its precise context as an artifact of those particular circumstances and those circumstances alone. The massive lean towards Western cultures in the field of book history is weakened by the inability of most researchers to approach print cultures that were born in more culturally fluid contexts. The quest for ultimate authenticity has regretfully prevented us from looking at the wide assortment of mixed print productions, and when researchers do look at these modes of production, the Western parameters in which we examine them seem forced and limiting. Overall, this book is a wonderful cache of examples of how examining print culture with a hyper-responsive and flexible model maximizes our understanding of the globalization of print through the frames of specific cultures.

From Little London to Little Bengal: Religion, Print, and Modernity in Early British India, 1793–1835 is by Daniel E. White. ISBN 9781421411644.

Report by Pattie Flint, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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