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Portraits and reviews, by G. Thomas Tanselle, Charlottesville, NC, The
Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2015, 485 pp., US$55.00 (hard
cover), ISBN 978-1-883631-16-1 (available from Oak Knoll Books)
Portraits and reviews features 28 portraits or biographical sketches and 31 reviews
written from 1959 to 2015. The first part of the book features portraits, most of which
are obituaries, and the second part of the book features the reviews. These portraits
and reviews focus on those in ‘the world of books and bibliographical and textual
scholarship’. This world includes librarians, along with book collectors, booksellers and
authors, among others.
Tanselle notes in his preface that he chose the two genres for their concentration on
the biographical aspects of the subject. The book gives a half-century overview of the
subject of bibliography, with a strong US flavour; since The Bibliographical Society of
the University of Virginia publishes the book, this US flavour is completely
Portraits and reviews is organised in chronological order of when the piece was first
published (or written, in the sole previously unpublished instance) in both sections.
The Portraits section simply provides the subject name and the date the piece was
first published. Depending on how knowledgeable one might be in bibliographic
studies, the bare facts title approach here may be a little too minimalistic for some
readers. So a reader, depending on depth of subject knowledge, may not know how a
particular person fits into the bibliographic or literary scene until the whole article is
read, or unless the preface is read, where Tanselle provides a breakdown of
professions, such as who is a librarian or a scholarly editor.
This reviewer, at first, was itching for context, particularly for the portraits, and a little
puzzled that reviews and biographical sketches had been republished in the book.
Perhaps this puzzlement was heightened because various tributes were part of a
whole, say, issue devoted to a particular character, such as a Bookseller issue
highlighting a particular book dealer. Read as part of a whole, with various other
writers, the selected portrait is placed in context in the magazine, whereas in the book
it is Tanselle’s piece standing alone. Perhaps it helps to remember the whole book is
placed in the context of bibliographic studies. The reviews are detailed, lively, critically
robust and provide an excellent arc of how times and attitudes may change.
Tanselle has achieved everything he set out to achieve in publishing this book, and it
will suit an expert audience. Portraits and reviews is an intriguing book that falls into
the ‘books about books’ category. Even within this category, its emphases on
bibliographic and textual studies make it a niche specialism. Academic libraries that
have a strong bibliographic focus and scholars in the field may find this book a useful
addition to their collections.
Doreen Sullivan
RMIT University