It has been a month since I attended the second of the two twined symposia co-organized by The University of Edinburgh and Harvard University, and nearly daily an insightful comment or compelling example from the symposium crosses my mind.
The symposium thrived within the conceptual space afforded by the difference between the History of the Book and the history of a book. This seemingly small grammatical difference, as well as the interplay between thinking of the book and new media and then the book as new media, opened the theoretical space of the conference.
At the conference’s concluding roundtable, the presenter’s joked about the rigorous work undertaken in the sliver of conceptual slippage offered by the different prepositions, noting that the symposium could be summarized in one sentence – “What are a book?”
Joking aside, each presentation at the second symposium continued conversations started at the Harvard University symposium while extending and subverting previous presentations. Anthony Grafton (Princeton University) delivered the conference’s first paper “”Do Not Cast Me Away When I Am Old’: Curating Old Media at Times of Transformation,” and drew attention to the parallel curatorial practices between Matthew Parker, first Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, and Google Books. Using this juxtaposition, Grafton urged that there cannot be a history of objects without a corresponding understanding of practices related to and uses of those objects.Michelle Levy (Simon Fraser University) offered another perspective of collecting as it related to preserving and sharing in the Romantic-era manuscript, and the affective response such manuscripts prompted in her “Loving Manuscripts” paper. Levy’s messy manuscripts challenge the hermeneutics of literary reading, and their affective resonances throw the depersonalization of print into stark relief.
In her paper “A History of the Laptop Book,” Leah Price (Harvard University) opened with a look at the site-specific reading experiments of e-readers and such experiment’s divergence from a longer history in which the book assisted readers to lose track of time and location. Price explained, however, that while the e-reader’s use varies so widely from print books, it is still measured against the durability of the paperback novel, making “Bed, Bath & Beyond” the final hurdle in the form’s proliferation.
Symposium co-organizer Tom Mole (University of Edinburgh) closed the first day of the symposium with his paper, “Illustrated Books in the Victorian Media Ecology.” In pointing to this media ecology, Moss drew on the curious state of books as both a medium and a vehicle for other media. Through his careful dissection of this complex ecology, Moss argued that one cannot understand that changes in one media without also looking at other, related media.
The symposium’s second day began by returning to blank books with co-organizer Deidre Lynch’s (Harvard University) paper entitled “Paper Slips: The Nineteenth-Century Album and Other Misadventures in Book-keeping.” While such blank books promised that any one person could create their book, the resulting necessary practices – clipping, excerpting, transcribing – challenged the bookish ontology and opened a space that challenge the temporality and linear progression of novel reading.
Matthew Rubery’s (Queen Mary University of London) paper “What is the History of the Audiobooks” then offered another look at the sort of traveling book Leah Price examined in her paper, though this time that book was actually a read recording. In his history of the audiobook, Rubery began with records meant for the blind and ended with the widely popular books on tapes marketed toward commuters. His paper opened considerations about the monopoly of visual considerations within book studies in the face of new media practices created by innovative technology.
Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford University) then gave the final paper of the presentation, her “We are all materialists now: books after books.” Sutherland opened her presentation by nothing that “As a bibliographer, I’m a bit skeptical of book history.” The symposium, however, left Sutherland optimistic, while her paper explored the current fatalism surrounding the codex form and tied it to the anxiety generated by mass printing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Sutherland, this intense concern with authentic communication at the center of such anxieties, then, opens a pathway by which to better understand the book as a relational matrix of information, as the book’s dissection and re-arrangement for the digital screen illustrates.In the symposium’s closing roundtable, the presenters worked with the audience to identify common threads across each of the papers. That conversation generated the “What are a book?” symposium tagline, and also considered the affect of shame that surfaced throughout the symposium – shameful reading, or the shameful clipping of book, or even shameful listening. The final roundtable also fully turned to questioning the overlap between the history of the book and new media, considering how media changes from manuscripts to books, and books to ebooks, reorganizes the ephemeral objects of everyday use.
Report by Michelle Skinner, PhD student in Early American Literature at the University of Chicago.