The look of an argument

guest post by Bonnie Mak, University of Illinois


"How the Page Matters," design by Jimmy Luu (2011)
Title + first pages of "How the Page Matters," design by Jimmy Luu (2011)


How the Page Matters explores the different embodiments of a fifteenth-century text as it is translated into different languages and across manuscript, early print, and digital media. By investigating the ways in which the page of the “same” text was continually reconfigured for different audiences through time and technologies, I considered the ways in which materiality and meaning-making are always dynamically entangled. Furthermore, I experimented with how the physical instantiation of the book publication itself, including its cover, the layout, and typeface, could be used to embody my argument. Was there a way to argue using both words and matter?

"A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library's Dead Time"The experiment with the book project led me to think more about the look of research, and to imagine alternative embodiments of an academic argument. To this end, I developed “A Cabinet of Curiosity: the Library’s Dead Time” with Julia Pollack, an exhibition that sought to embody the practices of the librarian. Each of the six sculptures in the exhibition was hand-crafted by the “librarian” to make evident her own role in the collection, classification, and curation of knowledge. The purpose of the show was to expose the manifold and complicated ways in which information is produced, processed, and circulated — not only in the book and in the library, but also elsewhere.

More images of the Cabinet are available here, and an interview with the artists is featured on the Library as Incubator Project blog.


Open House of Rare Books

To ground the symposium’s future-looking slant on the BOOK, there will be an Open House in MIT’s Institute Archives, Special Collections, and Conservation Lab on Friday morning, May 4th (10:00-11:30 a.m.). The Archives have a fabulous collection not only of science and technology holdings, but also of materials ranging across disciplines and print media. Here are a few highlights that will be on display for visitors to see and handle, akin to a mini-history of the BOOK. To learn more about MIT’s Institute Archives and Special Collections, click here.

BOOK OF HOURS use of Paris, Horae Beatae Mariae Virginis (France, 15th century) Uncataloged

This is a fine example of a manu-script, or a text “written by hand.” Books of Hours were private devotionals in the Middle Ages. One famous example is the Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry. A colorful anecdote about Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours recounts how she and Henry VIII used her book as a mode of flirtation! To learn more about Books of Hours, click here.

QUARTO SHEET (folded to make pages of a book)

To learn more about collation, see here.

LEAF FROM THE GUTENBERG BIBLE (Mainz, ca. 1454) Uncataloged

When this particular page was discovered in a hut in Germany, it was learned that other Gutenberg leaves were being used to cover local children’s schoolbooks. Compare copies on paper and on vellum here, or check out this “Anatomy of a Page.” When you’re ready to view the next item, try to judge that book by its cover…

BESTIARY, or Conrad Gessner’s Icones animalium quadrupedum viviparorum et oviparorum (Zurich, 1553) QL41.G391 1553

From its cover, this might be guessed to be a book of music rather than of beasts. But look below to see what lurks inside. The rhinoceros is a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s famed print. In addition to recognizable animals like lions and dogs, the book also contains unicorns and monsters. The book is printed, but the images all are finely hand-colored.

NUREMBERG CHRONICLE, or Hartmann Schedel’s Registrum hujus operis libri cronicarum (Nuremberg, 1493) D17.S315 1493

The Nuremberg Chronicle was an early printed book (or incunabulum) that served as a kind of illustrated world history. For efficiency, images often were repeated, which meant that the same-looking person might reappear labeled with a different name. The title exists on the fore-edge, rather than the spine. To see more images from inside the book (cities, people, and even a few more monsters) in a colored edition, click here.

DIDEROT’S ENCYCLOPÉDIE, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Paris, 1751-1765) AE25.D555 1751

These volumes from Diderot’s Encyclopédie relate to the history of printing, including that entry: “Imprimerie.” (A translation of this entry can be found here.) The volume of plates includes an illustration of a print shop. Beneath it is a composing stick of type (set in reverse) facing the opposite page that illustrates how that type would appear once printed.

ELIOT INDIAN BIBLE Mamvsse wunneetupanatamwe up-biblum God naneeswe nukkone testament (Cambridge, Mass., 1685) BS345.A2 E42 1685

This bilingual English and Wampanoag Bible was used by MIT student, Jessie Little Doe Baird, SM ’00 to help revive the Wôpanâak language.

WALT WHITMAN, LEAVES OF GRASS (Brooklyn, 1855) PS3201 1855

This is a first edition of Whitman’s famed collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. A number of editions appeared during his lifetime ~ and since!

MINIATURE BOOKS Galileo Galilei’s Galileo a Madama Cristina di Lorena (Padua, 1897) BS480.G28 1897

Other examples of miniature books in MIT’s collection include the collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln. A wonderful repository of miniature books can be found here.

SCRAPBOOKS Remarkable light-houses, and beacons, in various parts of the world (ca. 1832-1844) Uncataloged

For practices like scrapbooking, see also commonplace books and extra-illustration.


There are many interesting ways that readers interface with texts. Here is one case where the title page was reproduced by hand in ink, hard to notice unless looked at closely. (This particular text was used not far from here in its day in Salem, MA.) Richard Baxter’s The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits (London, 1691) BF1445.B39 1691

Manicules Johannes Indagine’s Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes” by Johannes Indagine (Frankfurt, 1551) BF910.I53 1551

An early means of highlighting, using your own personalized pointing hand (manicule) to draw attention to interesting parts of the text.

Marginalia John Stuart Mill’s Principles of political economy (London, 1880) HB161.M645 1880

Marginalia in this particular text (small as microscript) is in both English and French.

VOLVELLES & MOVEABLE PARTS Jean Oursel’s Le grand guidon et tresor journalier des astres (Rouen, 1680?) CE91.O978 1680 and W. Häntzschel-Clairmont’s Die elektrotechnische Praxis (Berlin, 1907) TK145.H36 1907

To learn more about volvelles, see here and here. Given its technological bent, might these somehow anticipate future directions of the book? What about this next book that seems to conduct electricity? W. Snow Harris’s Observations on the effects of lightning on floating bodies (London, 1823) OVRSIZE TH9061.H37 1823

All these and more will be on display at the Open House on Friday, May 4, from 10:00-11:30 a.m. Come and see these items in person, talk with librarians, and discover more about how to access these treasures on your own after the Symposium. In addition to the Reading Room display, visitors will be welcome to visit the Conservation Lab and talk to conservators about preservation practices and techniques.

Special thanks to Stephen Skuce, Patrick Olson, and their colleagues for helping to plan the Open House. Photos in this post by Gretchen Henderson and Patrick Olson, with permission by the Archives.

The Secret Life of Books

This video made the social media rounds a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would be a fitting first post as we begin to think about where books have come from and where they are going.

While I love the use of stop motion and certainly get a kind of kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling from watching this, I can’t help but notice the subtle implication that these books come to life in spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of readers. The intent may be to suggest that books are full of action and activity just waiting for a reader to discover them, but the implicit message, to my mind, is that bookstores are becoming a lonely place and that printed books (“real” books, as the title of the book in the closing shot says) need to be defended against the wave of digital publishing.

I found Janaka Stuckey’s recent post on the future of bookstores at the Poetry Foundation blog insightful on this point. He suggests increased specialization, an emphasis on community programming, and a closer interaction between booksellers and readers (through personal recommendations and in-store events) are the only way book stores can compete with Amazon. It’s not even more beneficial to publishers (like his Black Ocean imprint) to sell through mom and pop shops–Amazon kicks back a larger percentage of each sale.

The “Joy of Books” video subtly touches on this situation: at one point, we see a little brown moleskine turning the pages of a large hard-bound poetry book, a somewhat cute synecdoche for the reading audience Stuckey suggests is keeping bookstores alive: writers, and specifically poets.

Is the “joy” of books something inherent in their format–a material jouissance?
Is it perhaps in their content, which has historically been distributed in a wide variety of forms from the tablet and scroll to the codex and iPad?
Is it in the reader, without whose intervention the words stay locked in their covers, whatever form those covers take?

We’ll hope to consider some of these questions in the coming months.