It has been a while since I have posted anything here, but my writing energies have been directed towards #finishthedamnbook and drafting funding applications to support the next big thing. My other energies have been ricocheting in and around pedagogical spaces, where my students have taken, are taking, and will take what they have learned from the localized, intellectual communities we created together to forge new ideas, actions, pieces of writing, objects, &c, in new spaces with new communities, and so forth. I am endlessly inspired by these processes of collaboration and the way they have the power to cut through the solitary, individualistic, and self-serving imperatives that (still) define success in academia.
All this said, I was excited yesterday to learn that a roundtable proposal—about reading practices and bibliographic "depth"—that I helped put together on an airplane 30,000+ feet in the sky over America—in real-time collaboration with colleagues on the flat ground below (thanks, in-flight wifi!)—has been accepted for the Modern Language Association's convention in Chicago next January. (I should also note that the idea for this session developed informally in a Facebook comments thread.) The roundtable will put our literary reading practices (deep and surface) in conversation with the multi-dimensional, embodied, and experiential reading practices that we see as having been vital to early modern encounters with hand-press era books.
Below is the proposal we submitted. We hope it will pique your interest and that you'll join us for—and join in—the conversation, either below in the comments or at #mla19.
DEPTH OF FIELD: NEW DIMENSIONS IN THE STUDY OF EARLY MODERN BOOKS
“Depth of Field: New Dimensions in the Study of Early Modern Books” This roundtable explores new methods of reading, historicizing, and theorizing the materiality of early modern books. Bringing together six book historians from a range of institutions, we will consider depth as a heuristic for illuminating the complexity of textual media. Our aim is to rethink critical approaches to the flat surfaces of books by restoring visibility to the many practices that informed the production, use, and shifting value of premodern texts across time and space.
Material text studies, as it has developed over the last three decades, was founded on the premise that scholars ought to stop looking for latent or hidden meanings behind the text and instead to heed the surface of the page. New textualism, as much of this scholarship has come to be labeled, rejected the myopic but entrenched focus of the New Bibliographers on the notion that the processes of textual production and transmission corrupted easy access to authorial intention. Fredson Bowers wrote about needing to strip the “veil of print”—layers of interference created by the contingencies of the printing house as well as suspect motives of the stationers involved—in order to establish a version of the text closest to the author’s vision (Textual and Literary Criticism , 81). Of course, book history (if not bibliography) has moved beyond authorial intention as its primary desideratum. As a result, the province of much recent bibliographic scholarship has become “the literal surfaces of books themselves” (Marcus and Best, “Surface Reading,” PMLA : 9)—not only for what these surfaces may divulge about the processes and agents involved in making the text but also for what they reveal about intended and actual interactions between readers and the particular artifacts that have survived to us.
Yet it is hard to know what even counts as the surface of a book. While there is a tendency to think of the substrates on which we inscribe (and from which we extract) meaning as two-dimensional, our media are never literally flat. Ink seeps through pages. Type bites into sheets subjected to the pressure of the press. Paper is itself comprised of a variety plant fibers that all afford different kinds of use. This reorientation to the depths held within superficial surfaces raise significant questions for how we understand the histories of premodern books—and for how we understand the texts they transmit. How can this more shallow depth be described or measured? What does it look like, if it can be seen at all? In what ways does it invite or inhibit book use? What is the relationship between material and metaphorical (or, literary) depth? What are the best practices for the conservation and digitization of the three-dimensional page? How might we complicate a sense of the surface as a boundary by recognizing it as permeable, as a palimpsestic record of history, as a field shot through with its own histories of production and consumption? Finally, how might studying the history of these objects for their material depth compel us to complicate—or even abandon—our assumptions about what reading entails, of what it means to read a book?
This roundtable is committed to the ongoing engagement in book history with unique (rather than idealized) copies of early printed books. Participants will ask how our modern “discovery” of the contingency, multidimensionality, and inconsistencies of early books relates to the ways actual early readers understood media and interpreted the books they used. We will therefore take the surfaces of early modern book objects as records of complex, multivalent transactions not only between humans and their books but also between humans and the objects as well as the ideologies those humans deployed to craft books at various stages of their existence. In this way, the study of bibliographic depth is a study of the persistent material interactions that these objects demand. We crease them, shelve them, stand on them, mark them, blot them, pass them on to other hands, reshelve them, tear them, rebind them, cut them up, reconstitute them, add new materials to them through pasting and sewing and pinning, etc. The dimensionality and related temporality of these material traces have generally passed unacknowledged and unrecorded. And yet, through methodologies that mobilize sight and other sensations such as touch, smell, sound, and memory, bibliographic depth becomes eminently noticeable, observable, and therefore available for analysis. Early modern books as we encounter, negotiate, and interact with them are not passive or shallow, inanimate or flat. Instead, we will show that these books require deeply embodied and experiential modes of engagement—modes that transcend the transactional.
Each roundtable participant will spend 3-4 minutes describing and analyzing one or two forms/manifestations of bibliographic depth. We will then come together as a group for a thirty-minute conversation that synthesizes commonalities and raises key methodological questions. We will end by opening up the discussion to audience participation. Topics will likely include:
- Ink and type on/in paper: bleed-through, offsets, blots, bite
- Paper on paper: pasted-in cancel/errata slips, or error as depth
- Animal products on/in paper: sizing, or treating the surface of the page with gelatin to make it more absorbent
- Plant matter on/in paper: plant fibers in the rags used to make paper
- Wrinkles, folds, foldouts, dogears: manipulation that bends sheets to draw together distant points
- Bookmarks, tabs, pins, knots
- Page tears and repairs
- Interactive pages: vovelles, geometric paper models
- Book size: reading “deep” into a volume, and the tendency of annotations to constellate at the beginning or end of books
- Bindings: the transformation of flat-ish sheets into multidimensional books
- The “external” surfaces of a book that mark the passage of time, either as they are made of recycled waste objects or as they are worn down through acts of reading, storage or transport
- Indexes, tables, commonplace markers: do they facilitate skimming the surface of the text?
- Mise-en-page: as “invisible” (layered) receptacle for “visible” content
- Digitization: can digital tools disclose or hide bibliographic depth?
- Deep recoverable data: the metadata underlying the images/texts we see on the screen and use for everyday research