What is a Book? Notes from the Symposium on 4/17

This post was written in collaboration with the students in my course, ENGL 197: What is a Book? 

IMG_3035This course began with a desire to think about the place of the book in humanist inquiry. When we study literature we read books, but we do not always pause to consider what they are or why they are the way they are. What is a book anyway? A dense wood-pulp rectangle? A performance? A scrolling screen? This semester we have asked these questions of an array of materials in special collections at the Denison and Honnold-Mudd libraries, and at the Scripps College Press. We considered the roles of authors, publishers, readers, annotators, illustrators, book artists, and booksellers. We pursued detailed research about three case studies: the multiple texts of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the media explosion that accompanied the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and the perpetually revised editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. These are three case studies selected from many available examples, but they forced us to ask questions about the agency of readers and objects, the printing conventions of different literary genres, and the social hierarchies that shaped book production.

At the symposium we asked these questions anew with papers from the humanities fields of English and Spanish literary studies, history, music, digital studies, and book arts: What is a book now? What were books in the past? What kinds of books will the future hold?

The first panel, “Text & Paratext,” considered books as wholes and as parts. Jessica Rosenberg’s paper on sixteenth-century poetic miscellanies investigated metaphors of gardening, gathering, and “sundering” as processes of book-making and reading. Alvaro Molina and Francesca Gacho’s papers approached Cervantes’ Don Quixote from two different, but related, perspectives. Molina discussed the infamous case of the missing author portrait, an absent paratext. Using the National Library of Spain’s Interactive Quixote as a starting point, Gacho also considered the absence and presence of key contextual material in the hypertext of this digital collection. These papers asked questions about how we classify the material in books as miscellaneous parts, explanatory paratexts, or hypertexts.

We continued to explore these questions in the second panel “Print & Manuscript.” Interactivity was a common through-line between these three papers. Philip S. Palmer examined cases of hybrid books whose manuscript content augmented and exceeded conventional expectations. Likewise, Glenda Goodman’s analysis of instructional music books and household music manuscripts revealed a community of users engaged in the process of making texts. Rachael S. King contextualized the many ways readers could have read The Spectator in sheet or bound forms. These three case studies exemplify the multiplicity of texts that can reside in single codices and the many ways books were re-purposed by individual annotators or communities of users.

The final panel covered a broader range of topics. Papers traced connections within and beyond the category of the book. Warren Liu’s analysis of the digital poetry project Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries showed how technology can control the reading experience. The question of where the text resides (in the code in Liu’s example) carried over into Decca Dennett’s paper which considered the malleable text and constant revision of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Dennett argued that the format of performance lends itself to a process of revision which is uniquely queer in the case of this musical. Laurel Schy’s paper on an 1848 conduct book also raised questions about gender, performance, and text. Linking the conduct book tradition to twenty-first-century women’s magazines, Schy showed that the continuing tradition of didactic texts exists in another media format today. As a book artist, Kitty Maryatt presented a taxonomy of book-ness and raised many limit-cases for the category of the material book. From the digital to the performative, the didactic to the handmade, these papers questioned the very category of the book that underpinned the symposium (and course’s) title.

We ended the day with an exhibition in the Denison Rare Book Room where we looked at examples of the materials we had discussed throughout the day. Our conversation confirmed that the category of the book has always been vexed, miscellaneous, and unstable. We will continue to consider how humanities scholars can use the vocabularies of bibliography, book history, and manuscript studies to reassess this category. And we will continue to ask how we can hone our research methods to account for the particular existences of the materials that we study.

This event was sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School with additional support from Scripps’ Denison Library and English Department.



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