30 St Mary Axe is a skyscraper in London’s main financial district. Designed by Sir Norman Foster architectural studio, built in 2001-2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
London’s 30 St Mary Axe is referred to as “the Gherkin,” which a glimpse of the building on the skyline proves unmistakably appropriate. Mandy Brannan’s bookwork homage to the Gherkin is as architecturally intricate as the building’s cladding, and somehow more satisfying, perhaps because it’s less pickled.
30 St Mary Axe: Cladding (2009)
30 St Mary Axe: Cladding (2009) Mandy Brannan Flagbook. H102 x W134 mm. Edition of 20, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 20 March 2019. Photo: Books On Books Collection
Being situated is generally considered to be part of being embodied, but it is useful to consider each perspective individually. The situated perspective emphasizes that intelligent behaviour derives from the environment and the agent’s interactions with it.
Clearly we are not dealing with some mere mimetic piece of craftwork.
30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009)
30 St Mary Axe: Diagrid (2009) Mandy Brannan Modified flagbook. H121 x W154 mm. Edition of 20, unnumbered. Acquired from the artist, 20 March 2019. Photos: Books On Books Collection
Cladding uses a straightforward flagbook structure, but not only is it double-sided with the architectural photographs, it also places text on the inner side of the accordion support and a statement about the 5,500 panels of glass cladding on the Gherkin. The modification in Diagrid is the inward curving of the flags and their formation of the shape recalling the Gherkin. The wording on the reverse of the accordion is the definition of the architectural term diagrid: “a design element used for constructing large buildings with steel that creates triangular structures with diagonal support beams”.
In addition to the flagbook- and modified-flagbook arrangements of the photos, Brannan has enriched the substance of these works with her manipulation of her photograph of 30 St Mary Axe, reflecting a nearby building. Using several different methods, digital programs and then printer settings for digitally printing, she delivers an almost kaleidoscopic, reflective and self-reflexive effect in each work. In a sense, the work demonstrates the artist’s behavior — her choices of material, subject, text and technique in each work’s making — and how it derives from her environment and her interactions with it. By integration of text, image, color, structure and material, Brannan also situates the “Gherkin’s” architecture in our hands and gives us the opportunity to contemplate, appreciate and perhaps experience the sense of being situated and embodiment.
Alicia Martín’s series of installations called Biografías has been frequently noted across the Web — Designverb (2009), Crooked Brains (2010), SFCB Blog (2011), Huffington Post (2012), Inhabitat (2012), My Modern Met (2012, 2013), Arte Al Límite (2014), TiraBUZón (2014), El Cultural (2014, 2015) — but Nicola Mariani’s 2013 interview with Alicia Martín is the most useful entrée to this book artist and her work. The most telling insight from the artist elicited by Mariani is this:
Las intervenciones en la calle son de impacto visual, provocan curiosidad, sorpresa y la necesidad de llevársela en el móvil, en el iPad … y compartirla…. Son efímeras, por un tiempo asaltan al que va por la calle sin dejarle indiferente, la escultura “real” es la sensación que ha quedado en cada una de las personas y en la manera de recordarla, pensarla, contarla…. Una vez que se desmontan sólo queda en la memoria del que las ha vivido. Como cuando se lee un libro.
The interventions in the street have a visual impact, provoke curiosity, surprise and the need to capture it on smartphones, on iPads … and share it…. The installations are ephemeral, striking the passers-by in a brief moment allowing no indifference; the “real” sculpture is the feeling that remains in each of them, the way they remember it, think it, tell it…. Once the installations are dismantled, they remain only in the memory of those who have lived them. Like when you read a book
When I came to The Hague in June 2015, too many months passed before I visited Lidy Schoonens, owner of a bookshop devoted to book art, book arts and calligraphy, and one of the founder of the Leiden Book Arts Fair. In her shop on the fourth floor of the early 20th-century house on Johan van Oldenbarneveltlaan, I found myself sitting across from one of the orchestrators of Alicia Martín’s visit to construct her installation for the Paper Biennial 2012 at The Hague’s Meermanno Museum — an experience that put a “real” Martín sculpture in her memory. With her help, I was able to find these images of the installation.
Lidy described how the community quickly filled large dumpster bins with old books otherwise destined to be thrown away. Martín proceeded to manipulate and attach them to a wire frame, leaving their open pages to flutter and give sound to the cascade. By virtue of its here-today-gone-tomorrow status and its metaphoric metamorphosis of books into a torrent of now barely accessible information, Biografías reminds the viewer of the ephemerality of what appears to be permanent and urges “living” such moments of art to store the sight and sound in memory — or YouTube.
Housed in acrylic tube, eight pages including letterpress printed colophon page, seven pages of USGS topographic maps inscribed with sumi ink by hand, bound with a small piece of Fabriano Tiziano green in Japanese side-stitch. H184 x W679.5 mm unfurled. Edition of approximately 65, of which this one is dated and initialed on 7 November 2012. Acquired from the artist, 25 March 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
When as you continue first appeared, Jen Larson wrote of it in Multiple, Limited, Unique: Selections from the Permanent Collection of the Center for Book Arts (2011):
… this work serves as an elegant meditation and metaphor on the subject of life journeys — and orienting oneself in the midst of landscape or circumstance that can only be apprehended by survey and the will to move forward.
The year 2012 marked the centennial of composer and artist John Cage’s birth. An aficionado of “chance”, Robin Price revisited this work that had begun in December 2010 when she discovered on the Crown Point Press’ Magical-Secrets website the quotation by Cage. Cage had made this remark to Kathan Brown in 1989 after the Crown Point Press’ building was condemned following an earthquake. By chance, it now seemed fitting as a centenary birthday wish to this artistic master of “the purposeful use of chance and randomness”. Also by purposeful chance, Price turned to a technique that seemed entirely fitting for the work, its history and her personal perspective. Price writes:
… I took up the project anew and practiced writing on several different occasions, feeling dissatisfied with various trials. Eventually I found my way to writing with my left (non-dominant) hand as the most authentic expression I could bring to the content, as visualization of struggle, fear, and acceptance of imperfection.
Perfect bound. H305 x W229 mm. Acquired from the artist, 25 March 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection.
The very covers of the book were created by chance operations. Generated solely on press using three of the four process color printing plates from the book’s interior via “make-ready”, areas of image were built up on the paper by repeatedly passing the sheets through the press, and consistently rotating the sheets prior to their feeding through ensured variation among the covers within the edition.
In addition to the theme core to Price’s art, Counting on Chance embodies another aspect key to her work: choice and collaboration. Published in conjunction with the exhibition held at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center, the volume includes a brilliant essay by Betty Bright, interview by Suzy Taraba and a catalogue raisonné prepared by Rutherford Witthus. Like choosing the right colors, the right combination of fonts, the right layout, the right weight and opacity of paper, and the right structure, Price’s choice of collaborators (or their choice of her) in her work and publishing is an artistic practice itself.
Housed in a custom-made, engraved stainless steel box (H370 x W326 x D44 mm), concertina binding co-designed with Daniel E. Kelm and Joyce Cutler-Shaw, produced at The Wide Awake Garage; twelve signatures of handmade cotton text paper, the central ten signatures each made up of one sheet H356 x W514 mm and one sheet H356 x W500 mm glued to the 14 mm margin of the first sheet, for a total of 96 pages, each measuring H356 x W253 mm. Binding of leather covered boards (a hologram embedded in front cover) with an open spine, taped and sewn into a reinforcing concertina structure: H361 X W259 mm. The hologram, produced by DuPont Authentication Systems, features an early eighteenth-century brass lancet. Edition of 50, of which this is a binder’s copy. Acquired from the binder, Daniel E. Kelm, 15 October 2018.
Generating two double-page spreads, one for the Fasciculus Medicinae on the left and Cutler-Shaw on the right, the foldout pages extend to 1016 mm.
Responding to the 1993 Smithsonian challenge to book artists to create a work in response to a scientific or technical work in the Dibner Library, Joyce Cutler-Shaw approached Price for assistance in creating a unique book based on Shaw’s response to the Fasciculus Medicinae (1495), the first printed book with anatomical illustrations. A decade later, Price was convinced to issue this 50-copy edition. In Counting On Chance, Betty Bright recounts the story behind this brilliant collaboration. Detail and additional images about the work can be found here.
Bright, Betty. “Handwork and Hybrids: Contemporary Book Art,” in Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, edited by Maria Elena Buczek (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Essay highlighting the work of Robin Price and Ken Campbell.
For a decade, Alicia Bailey has played the role of Ceres to book artists and collectors, bringing them the Artists’ Book Cornucopia. And this has been in addition to creating her own bookworks, organizing other exhibitions and running Abecedarian Gallery and Raven Press. Artists’ Book Cornucopia X marks the tenth and last cornucopia but not the end of their impact.
Cornucopia implies abundance and variety, and Alicia Bailey has delivered both. A glance at the ten catalogues finds a consistently high level of participation — always at least thirty artists — and every catalogue has shown a “variety of varieties”. Consider these varieties:
Variety of structures: accordions, boxes, flag books, girdle books, pop-ups, miniatures, portfolios, scrolls, sculpted shapes, wallets, etc. The variations within each type would require a hunt through The Art of the Fold (Kyle and Warchol), Structure of the Visual Book (Smith) and Book Dynamics! (Hutchins) to identify them properly. In ABC X, all of the structures mentioned above are represented. Over the decade, the Artists’ Book Cornucopia have spilled out structural innovations such as Merike van Zanten’s A Soldier of the Second World War (ABC I), Pamela Paulsrud’s Touchstones (ABC II), Cathryn Miller’s Universe: Foundation Trilogy (ABC III), Louisa Boyd’s miniature Stardust (ABC IV), Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord’s Spirit Book #67 (ABC V), Candace Hicks’s Trees of a Feather (ABC VI), Karen Hardy’s Vellicate (ABC VII), Bryan Kring’s Shared Illusion (ABC VIII) and Josh Hockensmith’s After (ABC IX). The abundance of innovations makes a visit to the Abecedarian Gallery site for numerous second-guessings worthwhile.
The variety of material used by the artists overwhelms: beads and buttons (Ednie), cactus needles and jute (Reka), cement and glass (Bryant), ceramic and cardstock (Wolken), copper and redwood (Anstruther/Grasso), fishing line and wire (Johnston), fish-skin and mull (Klass), leather and “metal findings” (Melis), magnet and museum board (Burton), palladium and aluminum leaf (Bailey), ribbon and slide viewers (Grimm), silk and sinew (Alpers), thread and tyvek (Asato), window screen and wood (Fleming), zippers and fabric (Melhorn-Boe) and, of course, upcycled books (Anastasiou). Any appreciation of the ingenuity of materials selection and manipulation across the Artists’ Book Cornucopia requires a rewarding read of the descriptions provided in each of the catalogues.
Then there is the variety of techniques: blind deboss (Lawrence), calligraphy (Towers), chromogenic prints (Grimm), collograph (Dokudowicz), cyanotype (Biza), gelatine monoprinting (Powers-Torrey), intaglio (Larson), letterpress (Nakata), linocut (Knudson), photopolymer (Larson), risography (Powers-Torrey), silkscreen (Anastasiou) and woodcut (Lucas). Like the materials used, the techniques employed are almost too many to name, and of course, those named are used by more than the one artist mentioned.
And, of course, a riot of papers: abaca (Welch), Alabama kozo (Sico), Awagami Shin Inbe (Gorham), cotton-abaca (Lucas), Domestic Etch/Lana Laid/Masa/Niddegen (Powers-Torrey), Hahnemühle Ingres mouldmade pastel paper (Ednie), indigo flax (Johnston), Somerset (Moyer) and Thai Momi marbled paper (Towers), which of the varieties used are far too few to mention.
Likewise, the variety of shapes and direction is kaleidoscopic: zigzag, circular, globular, vertical, horizontal, square, cuboid and boustrophedon (left to right to left to right, etc.). And that is before any listing of the Platonic shapes in Sarah Bryant’s The Radiant Republic.
The wide variety of themes in ABC X echoes the same breadth across the previous nine catalogues. Here we have architecture (Bryant), botany and discovery (Gower), chronic illness (Wolken), the city (Dokudowicz), environment (Lowdermilk), industrial landscape (Burton), the literary (Bailey), pain (Reka), sexuality (Grimm), travel (Melis), wildlife (Thrams) and #MeToo (Ellis). The named representative artist is just a starting point for each theme, and the themes mentioned are only alphabetical, not exhaustive.
Perhaps the one varietal shortcoming of ABC I-X is that most of the artists participating hail from the US. When another nationality appears in one of the catalogues, it surprises. Over time, “vintners“ from the following countries have shown up: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Greece, Korea, Netherlands, Poland, UK and Venezuela.
The abundance and variety of Alicia Bailey’s Artists’ Book Cornucopia prove one premise and question another from Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books:
If all the elements or activities which contribute to artists’ books as a field are described what emerges is a space made by their intersection, one which is a zone of activity … There are many of these activities: fine printing, independent publishing, the craft tradition of book arts, conceptual art, painting and other traditional arts, politically motivated art activity and activist production, performance of both traditional and experimental varieties, concrete poetry, experimental music, computer and electronic arts, and last but not least, the tradition of the illustrated book, the livre d’artiste. The Century of the Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004, new edition), p. 2.
ABC X and its nine sisters shout a resounding “Amen”, but the rich quality and originality of the works displayed whisper “‘the’ century?” At the close of the 21st century’s second decade, Ceres is smiling.
The 20th century poet Ezra Pound espoused the view that the best way to understand and critique literature was by juxtaposition of works from different periods. Here is an attempt at that approach applied to the art of Jukhee Kwon and John Latham, but the critic might have better selected Kwon’s Libro Libero (2013) to make the point about “releasing … energy and celebrating freedom”. Kwon’s own thoughts about Libro Libero lead in a different direction though.
The work of Libro Libero was done with a Christian nun’s book. I am not so religious a person, but I understand that religion is about life. How we come and how we live and how we die. And every belief has a strong link with something invisible and oneself visible … (we live in the body) … you can say the connection between the soul and body.
So I made the bookwork to be producer and receiver. Pages are coming out (producer) and the scrolled papers are below them (receiver). The shredded paper is falling and settling on the scrolled paper boat (it looks like a boat or if you will a bowl). The falling paper is fragile but in the boat or bowl it becomes solid and safe.
Email to author, 26 September 2018, edited for brevity.
At the October Gallery in London in January 2019, I had the chance to see a similar bookwork. The difference drives home the use of the book as material — like clay or stone for sculpture, oils or watercolour for painting. But it is freighted, manifold material.
It brings paper, cloth or leather, and ink; it brings content. As in Libro Libero, Kwon turns another book into an active composite — the covers opened to spill out pages, cut and braided into ribbons, the last of which have been dipped into ink. Or, per the title, is it the covers opening, the pages unravelling and braiding, the ink of the words draining into a pool of darkness into which the ribbons are dipping? Rather than the lighter spiritual association suggested by the former’s title, shape and action, Dipping into Darkness implies a blacker interpretation. Or perhaps that is too Western a perspective. Is the breviary at the pinnacle of the work the result of the brush-like shape’s dipping into the ink of contemplation?
If the chance to view and contemplate Kwon’s art arises, take it.
Slipcase: H307 x W387 x D73 mm; Tray: H296 x W380 x D61 mm; Accordion: H270 x W356 x D33 (closed), H270 x W1115 mm (open). Edition of 500, of which this is #5, signed. Acquired from Van Vliet via Vamp & Tramp, 17 July 2020.
What is remarkable about this sculptural book is its fusion of collaborators’ efforts, of art forms, and of text, materials, techniques and structures.
In the late 1980s, Claire Van Vliet and Kathryn Lipke (née Vigesaa) were seeking a collaborative project. After Van Vliet spotted Denise Levertov’s poem “Batterers” in the American Poetry Review (1990:6), they agreed that the poem, which enfolds our abuse of the earth within a metaphor of domestic abuse, was the appropriate text to join somehow with Lipke’s series of structural artworks called Earthskins.
Kathryn Lipke (Vigesaa)
Installation views of the works created from paper pulp, clay and pigments; some reaching 69 feet in length. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.
When letterpress printers consider the reproduction of a short poem, the broadside is the most common art form adopted. Van Vliet’s adoption of it is anything but common. Instead, she has orchestrated a combination of structures and art forms. From the maroon-printed, brown linen slipcase slides a tray made of tamarack wood to which Lipke’s vacuum-formed panel of clay mixed with paper is fixed. As the black tray is lifted, layers of multi-folded paper attached to a backing appear.
The top two layers are glued and sewn with multi-stranded red thread to the third and bottom layer, displaying the names of the author, work and Van Vliet’s press. The bottom layer is glued to a backing of three strong card panels tightly glued to two wood runners, sawn or routered into a slight U shape.
As the top layer is unfolded by pulling it apart, left and right, three tabs drop down to reveal Levertov’s poem.
Van Vliet’s combination of structures and forms offers multiple orders in which to read the poem, which pleased Levertov because she liked the poem in both the stanzaic orders of 1-2-3 and 1-3-2 (correspondence with Kathryn Lipke and Claire Van Vliet, 20 July 2020). In a book-like way, the covering tray slides from its slipcover, the cover is removed, and the accordion pages unfold to be read left panel first, right panel second and center panel third, emphasizing the embedded and central metaphor.
Spread fully open, the structure assumes a single-sheet broadside form, and the “center” stanza moves from third to second in order. But there is a third order of reading, as it were. The broadside form “leans” into the art forms of print, painting and bas-relief sculpture. The text, images and design become a whole experience, an object to be taken in as a whole.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.
Not only in form does Batterers “lean” into the form of painting: the imagery and colors arise from the technique of pulp painting, a technique defined by the work of Marius Péraudeau in the mid-twentieth century. Pat Gentenaar’s still life Water Dragon in this collection provides another example of the technique.
Top: cover image of Marius Péraudeau: Pulp Paper Paintings (Paris: Ernst Maget, 1991). Photo taken at British Library: Books On Books. Bottom: Water Dragon (n.d.) Pat Gentenaar-Torley. Photo: Books On Books Collection.
In pulp painting, the paper is the painting. Assisted by Katie MacGregor and Bernie Vinzani in their paper studio in Whiting, Maine, Van Vliet poured different colors of paper pulp into prepared forms to create three sheets of paper on which to print and then collage into the image that suggests dual images: that of a volcano and that of a woman reclining on her side or face down. The fusion of shapes, the fusion of color and fiber in pulp painting, and the fusion of clay and pulp in the covering bas-relief (which can also be used as a stand for the broadside) fuse with the poem’s words and metaphor. Once this artwork has been experienced, reading the poem printed in a traditional book can never be the same.
This tale comes from J. S. Kennard’s short 1901 tome on the colophon — that last page at the end of a manuscript or book. The colophon has served many purposes: giving the title of the work, identifying the scribe or printer, naming the place and date of completion or imprint, thanking and praising the patron, bragging, blaming, apologizing, entreating, praying and much more. Examples can be traced back to clay tablets and forward to websites.
Its presence on websites may be one of those decried skeuomorphic hangovers from book publishing, but perhaps the colophon has an underlying value or purpose to serve in both the analogue and digital worlds. The late Bill Hill, who wrote the 1999 Microsoft white paper “The Magic of Reading” and was an early contributor to online typography, suggested making colophons a compulsory standard for website design and asked:
Why not introduce the venerable concept of the colophon to the Web? Could it be used to drive a new business model for fonts which would benefit the font industry, web developers and designers – and the people who visit their sites?[Sadly this page at the Bill Hill’s site is no longer available.]
Fanciful? Perhaps, but not much more fanciful than Erasmus’ proffered explanation of the word “colophon”. His expanded edition of Adagia printed by Manutius in 1508 includes this adage:
Colophonemaddidit He added the colophon. This came to be used when the finishing touch is added to something, or when some addition is made without which a piece of business cannot be concluded. The origin of the adage is pointed out by Strabo in … his Geography, …
And here is Strabo from the Loeb Classical Library online:
As venerable a publishing custom as the colophon may be, it is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Book artists tend to be more observant, but not religiously so, and of course some works of book art might be disfigured by a colophon. Still, there are sound reasons why book artists should bother themselves with a colophon — even if it stands apart from the work. In her review of Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books (2017), India Johnson gives one of those sound reasons:
It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.
The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. “Book Artists and Artists Who Make Books“, CBAA, 1 October 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.
If craft does figure in a work’s meaning, then the more we can see how it figures, the greater our ability to appreciate and understand the work. For conveying insight — what materials and from what sources, what processes, what tools, who contributed, where and when the work occurred — the colophon stands ready. But where does it stand?
A contemporary of Kennard, A.W. Pollard declared that, to be a proper colophon, it had to appear at the conclusion or summit of the work. Artful as are some of the manuscripts and books that Kennard and Pollard cite, none push the envelope in the manner that works of contemporary book art do. Which brings us to another reason for book artists to consider the colophon: inspiration from history or tradition.
The last page of the codex may be a rightful spot for placing the codex, but what if the bookwork’s shape is challenging or musing about the shape of the book? Finishing touches might go anywhere. Think of Van Eyck’s self-portrait hidden in a reflection in The Arnolfini Portrait, or that of Vélazquez in Las Meninas.
Historians’ diligent cataloging of the “hands” of the scribes has enriched the self-identifications in colophons and connected those craftspersons with additional manuscripts. Book artists who use calligraphy or involve calligraphers should ponder the implications of this tool historians use to identify scribes by the style of their “hands”.
What potential, meaningful “tells” in a work’s colophon might the book artist or calligrapher leave to enrich the work — and provide insights for historians and connoisseurs poring over the finishing touch?
The colophon’s underlying value or purpose warrants book artists’ thinking about recording it offline and online, though this might be stretching the definition of the colophon. Our enjoyment of Kitty Maryatt’s 2018 reconstruction of La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) by Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay is certainly enhanced by the “colophonic” booklet she included with the work and the “About” page online.
Perhaps the story of the little “i” left over – the colophon – will prod the future historians of book art to examine bookworks and their artists’ websites for those finishing touches and stir artists to bestow that last finishing touch for the sake of the work’s soul if not their own.
Richard Gameson. The Scribe Speaks? Colophons in Early English Manuscripts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. (See for the human interest: “I, Aelfric, wrote this book in the monastery of Bath”; “Pray for Wigbald”; “Just as the port is welcome to sailors, so is the final verse to scribes”.)
Ming-Sun Poon, “The Printer’s Colophon in Sung China, 960-1279”, The Library Quarterly,43:1 (January 1973). (See for the 34 calligraphic inscriptions and the colophon to the Diamond Sutra: “On the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Hsien-t’ung [May 11, 868], Wang Chiek on behalf of his two parents reverently made this for universal free distribution.”)
IB: The book has a great future. In the statement in my little red book [Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book] I talk about the renaissance of the book. It is already happening now. …
At a recent event, Massimo Vignelli claimed ‘The book is dead’. …
I was shocked when Massimo repeated that sentence, I read it everywhere. But the printed book does not need any defender. It has survived 600 years or so. The way information spreads depends on the inventions of that time; paintings have survived, photos, and the book is another form.
An ongoing chance-based publication project in the spirit of Ed Ruscha. Images are randomly-selected Google streetviews (which are often captured at noon to avoid shadowing) of cities like Paris, Tokyo, etc. The copy is compiled from all tweets containing the phrase “this is where” between noon and 12:15pm local time for each city. Consequently the text and imagery for each 15-minute issue originates from the same, albeit ambiguous, time and place. And though text and image are randomly paired, surprising narratives often emerge. Included in the collection of the Library of the Printed Web.
This is where is where the tradition of Ed Ruscha meets the Web. Go there and see for yourself.
In 1774 the House of Lords declared that perpetual copyright was illegal and that the fourteen year limit established in 1710 was the law of the land. What this meant in practical terms is that anyone with a press could now print up their own editions of Chaucer, Milton, Swift, Dryden, Spencer, and others. If everyone could print the same texts, one way to differentiate your product from the inferior output of your competition was through editorial apparatus — introductions, author portraits, and notes. … I just want to call attention to one item in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections that was sold by one of the more enterprising publishers of public domain material.Between 1777 and 1782, John Bell published a set of 109 volumes under the title Bell’s Edition. The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill. He launched the series with Milton’s Paradise Lost in April 1777 and attempted to maintain a regular schedule of issuing one new volume each week. Mike Kelly, Head of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College, commenting on William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge, 2004).
The photo here, presumably taken by Kelly, shows two boxes, hinged and stacked on one another and shaped like a stack of four or five large folios. Together the two boxes hold 109 small volumes, bound in Morocco leather and gilt-edged, constituting “Bell’s Edition: The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill” (1777-83). The Kindle of its age, as Kelly puts it.
Anyone who downloads (or ever has downloaded) the free or cheap Kindle versions of the Complete Works of [name your favorite classic author] will know how little “there” there is to differentiate the products in accuracy, quality or even typography much less editorial apparatus. Possibly a sign that we are still in the Age of e-Incunabla.
Kelly’s photos and words led me on to PhD student Jacob Halford’s related comments in “Remediation, or How Digitisation is Changing the Meaning of Texts, Part 1“. Halford explores how digitization affects how we read texts, understand and find meaning in them. The digital text gives the reader a whole new experience of the text as the printed book’s structure, font, layout and tangibility of the book are distorted or eliminated. That may seem an exaggeration, but look at Halford’s photos of Galileo’s “A Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems.” In one, he holds the book in his hands; in another it appears on a microfilm reader; in yet another it is shown on a computer screen. The perceptual differences are stark.
In Part 2, Halford illustrates equally well how digitization alters the experience of meaning through how we locate or find the work — from its position on a shelf among related works, to its entry form on the Early English Books Online (EEBO) screen or its entry lines on a screen of search results. As he says, “Historians when trying to understand the past need to understand the meaning of the book, to understand how it was read, what its value within society was. To forget this because of the removal of the various indications found in a physical book when it is placed in digital collections provides the risk of us distorting our interpretation of the past. We can exaggerate the value of a particular book and in that process miss out on, or undervalue, other crucial books because there is little to inform us of a book’s value and meaning when it is accessed through EEBO. So whilst EEBO gives us access to more books, in that process it loses part of a book’s history, and it is a book’s history that helps us to know its value, meaning and significance.”
This is not to raise another Gutenberg Elegy but rather to ask, What functions and features should we demand of today’s e-incunabula that will make one worth more than another and, more important, will urge them “out of the cradle”? And what affordances “in the network” do we need to understand the social history of ebooks?