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Investigating the Book

GEORGETOWN  M.A. CAPSTONE

A Place for the Book:

A Physical Book in the Digital Space

        The Progressive Practical Arithmetic for Common Schools and Academies, copyrighted 1877, was the first book I ever bought on my own. I found it sitting on an old desk chair after I had been tugged around an antique's store in Texas. Its printed cover and black spine with gold embossing caught my attention, so I opened it. Inside I found not just arithmetic lessons and explanations of Roman numerals, which I was learning in my own fourth grade class, but a four-leaf clover, notes in the margins, and a full seven pages of finished homework. Immediately, I was enamored with the beat-up little book and knew I had to have it, and all of the 19th century treasures within it. I gathered the myriad of dollar bills and change I had and asked my mom if she could find out how much it was. I slid $10 in quarters, dimes, and paper across the glass counter to the cashier and it was mine.

        This book sparked my collection of unusual, broken, and beautiful books, and also my love of the book as an historical object, something I wasn’t able to recognize until years after my collection started to grow. By the time I did, I had become an apprentice bookbinder and had worked in every field of the book business, including sales. Working as a binder, conservator, and sales associate, it was great to see just how fascinated some people were with my work. It was also interesting how much people believed they knew about books and the trade, and just how little they actually did. I met a man who had started a science book collection and believed he had a good, contemporary copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia, but the binding turned out to be more modern than he had hoped, diminishing its monetary value and any kind of value that the original binding and covers could have given it. Yet, he didn’t know this until I and another book dealer pointed it out to him. He had bought it at an auction house, and so assumed its authenticity was complete. A little more research into book history and its facets would have cleared up this problem for both him and the auction house, but it’s scattered among many different books and resources and websites. Even knowing how and when the rebinding was done would have been valuable in some way, either just to fulfill knowledge or to add to its monetary value based on its earlier condition, if it could be known. Recognition of the book as object is harder to assess when you are distracted by a name or title embossed on the cover. Ideas get in the way. This is why one of the first things I was taught as a conservator and dealer was to handle the book upside-down, so that I was never distracted by the text of the book, and so could “read” the book as I needed to.

        Books not only have history; they are history. My project will address this, allowing users to explore the physical attributes, stories, making of, and values of books all on the screen. It will be both a learning resource and a guided tour of the book, all while outside of the book itself, effectively forcing users to “read” the book in a different way. While this project stands a little outside of what most recent scholarship on digital representation of the book explores, I hope that it will add to the conversation about how the digital sphere can help us to gain more access and attention to the book as a physical object, along with its scholarly, historical, and personal impacts. Individuals with the desire to know more about the book and who want to make informed decisions based on the market, scholarship, and nostalgic fetishism of the book should find my project just as useful as generally interested individuals. My project addresses the physical nature of literature as a medium, its representation in media studies, not just English, the book’s impact on culture and the world, and its modes of communication that go beyond the actual words on the page. The book is not confined to its text, nor is it confined to its medium, but understanding the social and cultural impact of books as objects, and their place in our lives within the digital world, takes some readjustment. Introducing the book as an object to the digital space will make my project not just a resource for those wanting to know more about the book as an historical object, but also some perspective on what history can mean and do to our perspectives in the now.

        Book history, as a field, seems pretty self explanatory but when a book historian is asked about the subject they can tend to go on for days about one specific topic, and then go off on another, unprompted, tangentially connected topic. The actual trajectory of book history goes from stone and wax tablets to papyrus to the printing press all the way up to the ebook. This linear kind of “history” is not all that the history of the book encompasses. There are so many topics under the umbrella of book history scholarship that the book itself as touchstone is enough to set one scholar off in the direction of candle prices they had not considered while researching 19th century readership theory. Censorship, trade, the market, theatre production, and everything in between have a place in book history. The most prominent subsections of this field include the studies of readership, ownership, and codicology (the study of how books are made and of what). The first two of these subsections can be found under another study of the book: provenance.

       Provenance allows us to understand the actual social impact of the book as well as, potentially, its geographical locations, owners, readers, and certain price point at any given time. Provenance is more closely tied in with bibliography and the history of reading, but its uses extend to the book as an historical and cultural object with pertinent impact on the scholarly understanding of the book as a usable utility. David Pearson’s Provenance Research in Book History outlines the different points of identification of a book’s history. He says in his introduction: “books associated with distinguished people have long been regarded as desirable and noteworthy objects...there is a difference between venerating a book as a precious relic, and approaching the evidence of previous ownership with a view to asking serious questions about what it can teach us” (Pearson 2). Ownership and the questions we are able to ask with any knowledge gathered can inform the way in which the book is used and understood on an historical and a scholarly level. It also adds to the value of the book, elevating its owner’s potential monetary gain. Pearson does outline the problems with provenance research, since trying to pin down one owner or reader or even marginalia author can prove difficult if you simply do not have enough evidence. Evidence has been rubbed out, made illegible, or sheared off by decades of rebinding based on serviceability or fashion (Pearson 5). Mutilation of manuscripts, fires, or no markings at all in the books, and so in “perfect” condition make it exceedingly difficult to define provenance for books and book collections, and yet have a large space on the market as “fine” books, and ones worth collecting now.

       With the knowledge of bookbinding and its techniques, further inquiry into the spaces books occupied geographically adds to any value the book may have, and can help to overcome some of the dead ends that marginalia and basic modes of provenance encounter. You may find that a book sewn with alum-tawed skin supports, that is thin animal skin that has been put into a solution to harden a bit, along with a bolstered cover at the head of the spine and an endleaf sewn onto the bookblock from left to right can be identified as a French binding from the mid- to late-sixteenth century (LRBS 2017). The paper it was printed on, the font and the depth of the ink on the page, the pagination (numbering of the page), and endpapers can tell you many of the same things, as the production of the book and the location of the book at the time of more evident “human interaction” will not always be the same, but important nonetheless to it’s value. All of this information adds to the story and value of the book. This personal history is not just its trajectory of production but also its physical history (who owned it, where it was bound, how long it has been on a shelf, untouched, etc). In this way, all pieces of the book and the understanding that it has a significant piece of history and personality located in it, value can be found. Provenance as a study of the book is one of the best ways to identify value concretely, though it is made up of a few other, more solidly understandable, facets of book history.

       Value commonly refers to the book’s monetary worth, but there are other values to be assessed here: historical, scholarly, and personal. However, monetary value can often dictate these values, and vice versa, so one without the others becomes hard to define. Karl Marx and his theory on commodity fetishism shows how a product can become commodity based on the social structure of the market. Books, more concretely words, are a key mode of capitalism, as a basic medium with which to exchange ideas. The labor of an individual man produces an object that is then compared to other similar products - either in actual objectifying terms or in terms of production itself - and this is where monetary and intrinsic values are determined. The object then becomes part of a social network of laborers and consumers, and is no longer a product of an individual’s labor but rather a part of the commodity culture. In any case, the market, according to Marx, is able to fluctuate only based on the whims of what is deemed valuable in comparison to other items, not necessarily on the labor intensity that produced it. He says “Value...does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic” (Marx 167). The book, in this way, is not a product of the labour but a hieroglyph of the society it engages with and participates in as an object, becoming a symbol of communication, learning, and knowledge. Fetishism of commodity can only exist when we believe that the market is filled with “products of the human brain” which “appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own,” and so engage with them as consumers (Marx 165). In this way, things dominate the market, and the market cannot function without the “intrinsic” value of things, “intrinsic” being determined by similar items on the market and similar labors being evident.

       Books are also evidence of history; this seems self explanatory, but fields like reader theory and provenance show that this has to be proven at some stage. Provenance alone adds to the historical value of the book because it is able to fill in gaps in history and knowledge of specific people, places, events, and other items. The evidence of human interaction, as well as the continued fetishizing of the book, makes it possible for scholars to trace ownership and readership. The rise of the digital book has complicated these theories and histories, however, as digitized books start to overtake scholarship and primary source research and don’t leave much room for reader interaction. Interaction with the book and its texts are further complicated as born-digital texts emerge, which David Pearson has attributed to the ease of the internet: “The power of the Internet means that we now have a medium that is arguably more effective than print on paper as a mechanism for transmitting texts” (Pearson 408). There is great importance, however, to the physical object of the book for scholarly value. Pearson writes in an address to the Bibliographic Society of America:

           [I]f you take a copy of a seventeenth-century book that is entirely unannotated or written in, that has lost all traces of its original binding and endleaves through ruthless rebinding in the twentieth century, then realistically it may not have a lot to offer a scholar today that he can't get from the digital surrogate on EEBO. If, however, you have a copy in a contemporary binding with a trail of inscriptions and ownership marks carrying all kinds of messages about the status and interest of the book in previous generations, you have something different altogether, and a unique cultural artifact.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Pearson 410

       It is understood that the book can be a “cultural artifact” and though I agree with his assertion that you cannot achieve the same kind of scholarship with a digital reproduction of a book as you would with the physical thing, there is also the ability to explore the book as an object on the screen in a way you would never be able to accomplish with it in your hands. Tangibility is an important factor to learning of the book, but can be done in more than one way. He does, however, point to “a trail of inscription and ownership marks” that, as marginalia, have a value not only of scholarly value but also of personal value, a reason for a collector to desire it or a family member to treasure it.

       Annotators often claim “irresistible impulse” Jackson says; that they are impelled to stop reading and comment or question what they have just found in the text (Jackson 82). Marginalia is not a new concept, having been around longer than bound books, as “readers have to interpret writing...a note follows text as thunder follows lightning” (Jackson 44). Being in contact with the words on the page translates into the physical and evident response to the words. Annotations are identified as visual checks between reader and author, but once a reader starts to write in a notebook, common book, or simply on another piece of paper, the separation between the two becomes both physically and psychologically evident, as most marginal notes are immediate responses to the text while extra-marginal notes are more synthesis and analysis for understanding. Thus, the immediacy of marginalia found in actual margins adds to the personal history of the book and the individual that can be identified from it. Jackson admits, “[f]or myself...annotation is part of the history of a book...evidence of use is less depressing than the signs of a book’s having never been read” though she goes on to say that she will address actual abuse and destruction of the book later on, both of which can make it hard to study the book. The thingness of the book is what compels the annotator to write, as they feel they are given the opportunity to respond to the text on the book itself, and so the book is no longer being used for its original purpose but is instead asserting itself into the reader’s consciousness as something to respond to, becoming something new with their interaction.

       Bill Brown’s exploration in his essay “Thing Theory” addresses the materiality of the object and its presence in the physical world, as well as the myriad meanings of the word “thing,” when the signs that should coincide with the signifier are too many to describe. His main point is that at the moment when an object no longer serves its intended purpose, like when a window becomes too dirty to see through or a car breaks down on the road, it is transformed from object to thing with an agency and ability to interrupt our lives and assert itself. The questions that arise lead to an understanding of subject-object relationships rather than the “material effects of ideas” (Brown 7). He goes on to say that the object, though many are made for man’s utility, are theoretically defined by the labor that goes into them and their intent, as Marx described, but methodologically they show human nature when they do their own work and interact with the world (Brown 6). Following the thing rather than the idea of the thing (its intent) can complicate the subject-object relationship that is formed when an object becomes a thing. Brown says, however that “[m]ethodological fetishism...is not an error so much as it is a condition for thought, new thoughts about how inanimate objects constitute human subjects, how they move them, how they threaten them, how they facilitate or threaten their relation to other subjects” (Brown 7). Objects then are able to interact with human subjects in a way that makes the potential for further interaction with even more subjects and the ability to create a feeling and bolster an idea just by being present at a certain point. Therefore, “we learn that history is exactly the currency that things trade in and that obsolescence as an accusation, whenever it represses its own history, is utterly passe” (Brown 13). The past is the reason things exist and persist, and so when the history of the thing is ignored, glossed over, or obliterated, the thing is no longer itself or in the fashion of itself, though still an object. I’m not sure how much I believe the assertion, if this is in fact the correct interpretation, but it creates an interesting argument for the “thingness” of the book and why it is important to know all valuable aspects of it as an object with materiality and an agency that makes itself known. Without its past or the understanding of its personal and historical relationships to the people who interacted with it, can we actually know its true value, if value is ever true?

Here is where my project lies, where the book is both equipment and artifact, used and seen, and wholly outside of its own history while being so encompassed it it and the history that surrounds it as an object of culture. It is a thing that has asserted itself and will not be ignored, so how will I make sure it is noticed as it should be? If a book is a cultural artifact of history and personality, with this definition every book that has been circulated at some point should be in a museum. In a museum with the book functioning as an artifact, it makes it even harder to understand the book as a physical object when it cannot be physically touched or perceived, only known by sight. Tangibility of the physical object changes the way we can learn about it, which is why Pearson argues for scholarship to lean away from the digital and back to the physical object. However, I believe that there are ways to make the book tangible in the digital space that Pearson may not have anticipated, and to encourage physical contact with the book outside of the digital space.

       The digital space allows for a showcasing of the book without jeopardizing the physical book itself. I am not totally against Pearson’s argument; I think the most valuable scholarship will come from the study of a physical book, however the digital can be used to your advantage in this research if the site is done well. My project will allow for the digital object of the book to be interactive in a way that mimics tangibility but rather than wanting to be the source of one specific book, it will be a reference and workshop on how to recognize the book as a physical object in the physical world. This keeps the book safe and gives users the tools to interact with the book in a way they would not be able to in a museum or curated forum. That being said, curation and my project will have to go hand in hand and so I will design my “guided tour through the book” as a digital exhibit that can cultivate interactivity with the book and the facets that compose it.

       Saul Carliner lists his “Guiding Design Concepts” for creating exhibits based upon what he has learned from exploring museums. These concepts include immersion, themes, layering, and “skimmability” of the source of information so as not to exclude any patrons or users (559). Immersion is the easiest explained but most difficult to achieve, as it is basically trying to ensure that the user or patron is completely enamored and interested in the subject; the reason they would want to enter your exhibit. Themes, organizing the exhibit by milestones or key ideas rather than timeline or information dump, and layering, a system by which the information of the exhibit is tiered (introduction, theme, object), are both a bit easier to achieve once you have all of your information gathered. “Skimmability,” a word I’m sure Carliner created, is a concept I’m not sure I agree with for a project like mine, though I can see its value. It is meant to reach the widest audience in the museum setting, which will not always be school groups, neither always scholars with a vested interest. Therefore, the language must be readable, the vocabulary explained, and the theories parsed out so that anyone of any educational background can understand the exhibit. I think if I am to use this outline of concepts for the design of my site, “skimmability” may function only in the first or second tier of the explanation in layering. Once the theories are entered, I will make them readable but “skimmability” does not seem to serve an in depth discussion of reader theory and provenance if the user is in fact going that deep into my site. My feelings may change, but I think maybe just a switch of the word may help me to like the concept a bit more.

       On the digital space, tangibility, which I have discussed above, will be one of the harder things to simulate. My hope is that, such as with projects like The Peacock Room website, there will be an ability to have the artifact to click on, rather than to click around it without engaging with it. Movement over the book will highlight certain aspects that can be clicked on and then explored through either a pop up or a transcription facing the book so that both object and text are present on the page. My largest problem with similar book sites is that you click on a topic and it takes you to only that topic and doesn’t explain it well and explains it without the actual primary source present. My project will be an exploration of the book with the book. That book has not been determined as of yet, however, and if I will be using more than one. My ideal structure for the project will most likely be designed around one book with the ability to choose which attribute of the book to discover first.

       It has been suggested that since I am effectively trying to teach how to determine value and meaning in the book I should structure it as such, having a beginning and an end to the “list of things to do” when you encounter a book. But everyone has a different attraction to the book. For me it is immediately marginalia or any other evidence of human interaction with the book at first glance. For others it may be the cover art of a dust jacket or the embossing of a leather bound book. For still others they may find the unopened pages (pages of the book which have not been cut at the top so as to separate them to read) the most interesting because they are the first to read it. Each of these kinds of attraction have meaning, so if I tried to structure it with “before” or “after” or anything of the like, it will detract from the experience others have with books. What I would like to do is to have the book first and foremost on the site, with the ability to move through theory, attribute, and story at the user’s pace. For further development of learning, however, it may be useful to have worksheets for the user to print out and use what they have learned on a book in the real world. The worksheets will probably have questions related to the feel and physicality of the book as well as what grade they believe the bookseller would give such a book, then be able to go back to the site and further research anything that they may have an interest in and which may help them clarify anything they have discovered.

       Within the theoretical fields of thing theory and Marxism, I think it’s fair to say that I engage with both but have very little to contribute. What I can contribute has more to do with the digital space and its economy of books, as well as the tangibility of the text on the screen making its materiality indistinct and yet locatable. In the case of book history and books studies, I believe I’m seated pretty squarely next to Pearson and Jackson: books have value beyond their text, they mean something to the world, but I think I will be taking it a bit farther than they have with this project. The digital cannot be ignored as a medium for books to engage with, and so I will be moving the field one tiny step closer to understanding where the value of the books they study, cherish, and sell can lay for a wider audience. I’m trying to make a space where people who don’t know the book the way book historians do can engage with the book as an object, something that both holds information and informs the understanding of things outside of itself and its topic. I hope to make it easy for booklovers and book laymen alike to understand the importance and the value of books, both within and without its monetary values. The project contributes to the discussion of the value of books in the scholarly, historical, personal, and monetary areas as well as the representation of books both on the page and on the screen as well as the ideas of curation and audience engagement with artifacts that cannot be touched, when tangibility is the main idea behind most artifacts: that they were used. That is what I intend for my project, for it to be used.

All works cited will be listed in the bibliography under this essay's title heading.

Questions from Professor Sherry Linkon and My Answers

1) In general, what is the cultural value of old books? What do they represent? Your discussion at this point is pretty broad. Old books represent the past, they represent people in the past. But what do they tell us about the past, or about people in the past?

       This is something I will be digging deeper into this coming Christmas break. The book I want that will really help me with this issue is just not arriving at any library and it is the most frustrating thing. I have a few other books, like Patience and Fortitude and A Gentle Madness which should help me in this vein as well to read.

 

2) Can you also dig a bit more deeply into the materiality of books as a source of meaning or a way of reading? For example, you note that certain materials tell us when and where a book was made. That’s terrific, but so what? For anyone other than a book history geek, why is that useful, insightful, or engaging?

       There is a psychoanalytic theory of paper that goes back to parchment called “skin theory” and has been used to describe the “skin” on skin touch that is very like a physical touch between humans. Though of course our paper very quickly (in terms of history) went from parchment, and so animal skin, to rags and pulp, the thought is still there and the possible interactions still there. I wrote a paper on this for Medieval Sexualities last semester, but I wouldn’t mind expanding it to talk about how books can make you feel beyond the words on the page.

 

3) My sense is that all of this is so important to you, so central to your interests and your work, that has become intrinsic. You’re invested in this, so it’s hard for you to explain why you think it’s important – it just seems obvious. But you’ll have an easier time making a case for your readers if you can be more explicit about why you find all of this so fascinating and significant. In several places, for example, you write about how knowing the provenance of a book “can inform the way in which the book is used and understood on an historical and a scholarly level,” but you don’t explain how that works. What does provenance tell us? How might we read or see a book differently if we knew its ownership history?

       The view of a book once it’s ownership history is established makes it more or less important to the person who or institution that owns it. Is it a collection of Byron’s poems owned by Mary Shelley? Well then, that book has just shot up in cultural value because of the insight we can have to Mary Shelley’s library, her thoughts if she had any marginalia in the book, and the importance of the book to her, either shown by reverence of the pages (well kept) or the state of the cover (badly rebound or the like). From this scholars can study her as a reader and woman as well as a writer. Is the book a novel owned by an ancestor of its owner? This can show the way books are bequeathed and what that adds to the thoughts of their meaning in the past, the value family history to the individual and the knowledge of family history for scholars of a certain area, era, or demographic.

 

4) As I think my notes also suggest, I want to encourage you to think about all of this not just as a book binder or someone involved in the rare book trade, but also as someone who’s about to complete an MA in English. How does your literary, historical, cultural side see all of this?

       The literature of the past did more than populate the minds of its readers, it populated their homes, communities, and families. Books were a medium for thought but also a physical transfer of thought between people: a sign of affection, honor, duty, or love. Their history can reveal the humanity of the past, what they found important and what they valued, what they wanted from their world and how they wanted to be viewed. The culture that surrounds rare and old books now, as well as modern books, has more to do with the rallying feeling that these books give through their words, but their medium provides something that you just cannot get without the physical book: the touch, the feeling, the agency, and the desire for more.

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