pretty picture penance

It’s been much longer since I’ve written a proper post here than I meant for it to be. In my defense, I’ve been pretty busy over at The Collation, running the show and writing my own contributions. There’s lots of good stuff over there, including a whole world of manuscript exploration that I don’t do here; check out Heather Wolfe’s and Nadia Seiler’s interesting posts if you like that sort of thing (and if you don’t think you do, browse anyway and you’ll learn that you do!). And if you’re looking for advice on using Folger digital resources, like searching Luna and the power of permanent URLs and Mike Poston’s new tool, Impos[i]tor, the tooltips series is for you.

In any case, this post isn’t meant to be an advertisement, but to do a pretty picture penance: sharing some great book images, even if I don’t have the time to talk in any detail about them. So . . .

Voila! This is a lovely blue and red penwork initial letter from an edition of Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV, printed in Basel in 1482. (Here’s your catalog record; all photos, through cell-phone crapola, can be clicked and embiggened.)

Here’s another initial, where you can see how delicate the penwork is. I love how the details drape down the column of text:

Not all the initials in the text are so fancy. Here’s a nice, albeit plain, red one:

But that’s not the most interesting detail in this photo. Look again. And then look at this one:

And this one:

You know what I’m talking about, right? They’re the impressions left behind by the finding tabs that were once there! If you look again at the three photos, you can see how they line up, each new section marked slightly below the previous one, so that the tabs stick out, all easy to find and to use to jump to the beginning of a section. Here’s a detail from the first tab:

And here’s the verso of that leaf:

You all know how I like it when I see details of physical features of books that are normally hidden:

Because the front board is loose, you can see some of the knots of the sewing structure holding the binding and the book together.

And what else do I love? Details that show something about the printing process:

At first glance, that looks simply like ink bleeding through from the other side of the leaf. But did you notice any bleedthrough on any of the other pages? That’s some heavy-duty paper. No, that isn’t bleedthrough, it’s offset! In the words of John Carter, offset is

The accidental transfer of ink from a printed page or illustration to an adjacent page. This may be caused either from the sheets having been folded, or the book bound, before the ink was properly dry, or from the book being subsequently exposed to damp. Offset from engraved or other plates on to text, and from text on to plates, is commoner, and also much more disfiguring, than offset from text on to text. Text offset occasionally provides valuable bibliographical evidence, since it usually derives from the very earliest stage in the assembly of the printed sheets into a book. And some of the neatest deductions have been made from the offset, not from one page to another of an individual copy, but from the offset on a page of one book from printed sheets belonging to another which happened to be stacked with it at the printer’s.

So there you go, a whole bunch of my favorite things, all in one book!

the serendipity of the unexpected, or, a copy is not an edition

My last post focused on my frustration with the assumption that digitization is primarily about access to text:

But access is not all that digitization can do for us. Why should we limit ourselves to thinking about digital facsimiles as being akin to photographs? Why should we think about these artifacts in terms only of the texts they transmit? Let’s instead think about digitization as a new tool that can do things for us that we wouldn’t be able to see without it. Let’s use digitization not only to access text but to explore the physical artifact.

I spent the remainder of that post brainstorming some suggestions about what digitization might enable other than access to text, and there were some great comments about the ramifications of textualizing the digital that I’m still mulling over. In this post I want to offer some examples of why we might want to look at books rather than digital surrogates as a way of approaching the relationship between digital and physical from another angle.

So why might we want to look at physical books rather than digital surrogates, other than a fetish of smell and a sense of the magical presence of the original? Here are a few examples that start to get at what physical books offer that digital surrogates miss.

The making of the book

One of the things that we learn from examining books is how they are made. There are all sorts of things you can see in physical books that reveal their making: watermarks and chain lines in the paper (which can help date a book, as Carter Hailey has shown ); sewing structures in bindings (which can reveal if pages have been cut out or added in later); and pasted-in cancels or errata slips (which show changes made due to correct errors or in response to censorship).

It’s true that some of these features could be incorporated into digital surrogates; as my photo above shows, it’s absolutely possible for digital images to reveal paste-ins such as this one. But it’s also true that most users of digital surrogates of early modern books rely on EEBO, in which the equivalent page appears thusly:

The text might be the same, but there is no indication in the EEBO reproduction that the text appears on a slip of paper that has been pasted onto the page (although a keen eye might notice that the lines are not quite square with the rest of the page). If all you care about is text, that’s fine, but you’re missing a key part of the book’s history. And what happens if you were looking at a copy that didn’t have the errata slip (not all copies did)? You might never know it was an option–see the later section, “a copy is not an edition” for more on that.

My larger point here is that while digitization could convey some aspects of this category of information, they generally do not.

The history of the book’s use

The best thing about old books, I think, is their longevity and the traces of the history that they carry with them. Inscriptions, marginalia, doodles, vandalism, erasures, cutting out images and leaves–none of those are captured if your focus is solely on the text, and all of them have something to tell us about how a book was used.

(This is an image of one of the Folger’s three copies of Sacro Bosco’s Sphaera Mundi; this one happens to be heavily marked up, with additional diagrams penned in and plenty of annotations, but the other two are significantly less annotated. It looks yellow, by the way, because I took the photo myself, sans flash, per Folger requirements. There’s not a whole lot of light in the Old Reading Room, and I did a sort of half-hearted job of color-correcting my picture.)

Here’s a detail from a blank leaf from the middle of a 1550 Chaucer Works that’s covered in marginalia. I count at least four hands in this picture, three sixteenth-century and one twentieth-century. There’s other marginalia in this book, too:

So add two more hands (this time a seventeenth-century and a twentieth-century one that is mistaken about the date) to the collection of readers who have left their traces in this book. And then there’s this, from the same volume:

So that’s one more inscriber (although he doesn’t appear to have been an owner of this book). There’s also the cover of the book, with two more names incorporated into the binding, eighteenth-century descendants of Frances Wolfreston. I’ve written about this book and this collector before, so I won’t go on further here. But this kind of passage through history tells us not only about one particular family and one particular book, but gives a window into different responses to and uses of Chaucer’s poetry.

I suppose it’s possible that digitizing could capture this; if I can take pictures of these inscriptions, there’s no reason a digitization project couldn’t. Oh, except time and money. This is a big book of more than 300 pages, and only one of two copies we have of this imprint, and one of five copies of this edition, and one of I-don’t-know-how-many mid-sixteenth-century copies of Chaucer’s Works. Are we talking about a project that will digitize all pages, cover to cover, of all these books? Who’s going to fund that? Is it worth funding that as opposed to, say, funding digitizing all the books that were once owned by Ben Jonson?

The serendipity of finding the unexpected

This sounds a lot like the sort of paean to open stacks and browsing that you hear from some book fetishists. But I’m talking about something a bit more complicated, I think. When you look at a digital surrogate, someone has already made the decision for you about what you want to see and how you are going to use it. There’s no reason you can’t use the surrogate differently, but every choice they’ve made impacts your ability to circumvent it. For instance, some of the biggest digitization projects out there don’t include blank leaves or pages in their digitization. ECCO is the chief culprit that comes to mind: they prioritize text, and so their surrogates start with the frontispiece or title page, then move to the dedication/preface/letter to the reader/start of the text. But you know what’s missing? The blank verso of the title page. Does that matter? I don’t know. It might. It depends on what you’re looking for. But you’ll never know that you might be looking for an answer that depends on that blank presence if you don’t know that it’s not there.

Jeffrey Todd Knight has written about this serendipity in his most recent article, “Invisible Ink: A Note on Ghost Images in Early Modern Printed Books”. His focus is on ghost images left behind when some of the Pavier Quartos were bound together in early collections with non-Shakespearean works, so that an image of the title page of Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness appears faintly on the verso of the last leaf of Henry V. Knight draws out some of the implications of what this means for the Pavier Quartos and our understanding of Shakespeare book history–go read the piece yourself–but he also makes a broader argument for the need to consider the invisible, reminding us that “it has been easy to forget that text reproduction technologies, at every level, carry biases”:

The onscreen interfaces that give us Shakespeare and Heywood’s plays today are not transparent windows onto the text themselves; they define and regulate a field of visibility, as do all forms of curation going back to the early copies, which also carried biases.

What I would emphasize is that we don’t know what we’re missing until it’s possible to see it. We can’t see the blank pages or the invisible ink if we’re experiencing a book through decisions that have already eliminated the possibility of seeing them.

A copy is not an edition

This is true for all books, but especially early modern books: no two copies are the same, whether through the process of how they were printed or their subsequent use by readers. The practice of stop-press changes being made at any stage of production, and at multiple stages of production, and the habit of mixing sheets so that “uncorrected” sheets can appear in the same copy as “corrected” sheets, means that any book that had changes made during the printing process will exist in different states. Nor are those states typically indicated on a book’s title page or (depending on how important a book is seen as being and how well cataloged it has been) in its bibliographic record. You can only find these variants by looking at multiple copies of a single edition–hence the brilliance of things like the Hinman collator, the Lindstrand Comparator, the McLeod Portable Collator, and Hailey’s Comet, all devices that allow their user to compare multiple copies of books without actually reading them. (Reading, as any copy editor will tell you, will only distract you from what you’re actually seeing on teh page; collators–or, as I like to think of them, the original textual/machine hacks–let you look instead of read.)

Why do we care about these textual variants? We might care because they tell us something about how the book was made, because it might say something about economic or societal pressures (if they were changes introduced in response to something other than correcting an error), or because the presence of and differences between states might help us understand the range of textual meaning available.

One example of the stop-press changes can be seen in the second quarto of Hamlet, in which Hamlet’s lines to Osric exist in three states, two of which can be compared in the Shakespeare Quartos Archive:

We are in no danger of missing the many textual variants of any of Shakespeare’s plays. But imagine if we were talking about, say, a Webster play, or a poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth. Those have not been as extensively, even fanatically, collated as Shakespeare’s works have. Nor have the funds been lavished on reproducing many digital surrogates of a single edition, as they have with Hamlet.

Remember above when I pointed out that some copies of The General History of Virginia have an errata slip, but others do not? If you encounter a digital surrogate of a copy that has the slip, you will treat that copy as if it represents the entire run of that edition, as if all copies of that edition of General History have errata slips. What is the characteristic of a single copy becomes a characteristic of the edition. But a copy is not an edition; what is unique to a copy is not common to the edition.

This list of possibilities has gone on long enough. Nearly everything I write about on this blog dwells on what we discover from looking at one copy of one book. If you’re curious to see more examples of what you might find from looking at physical books rather than digital surrogates, try some of the following posts in addition to the ones I link to above about blanks and Frances Wolfreston: “an armorial binding mystery“, focusing on overlapping book stamps; “essayes of a prentise“, about the significance of the binding on a volume of James I’s writings; “David and Goliath, redux“, about finding the same pattern of embroidered bindings; and “bibles for historical occasions“, in which I think about, um, bibles used on historical occasions.

I would love to hear more thoughts from you on this subject, particularly of lucid examples of what we can learn from looking at physical books beyond the sort of intangibility of emotions that books can evoke.

that thei they thnt

My students are in the process of choosing the books they’re going to work with this semester, so I’ve been looking at lots of books I haven’t seen before. One of them is an English translation of Nicholas Monardes’s Historia medicinal, a 1577 book with one of those glorious long titles: Ioyfull newes out of the newe founde worlde, wherein is declared the rare and singuler vertues of diuerse and sundrie hearbes, trees, oyles, plantes, and stones, with their aplications, aswell for phisicke as chirurgerie, the saied beyng well applied bryngeth suche present remedie for all deseases, as maie seme altogether incredible: notwithstandyng by practize founde out, to bee true: also the portrature of the saied hearbes, very aptly discribed: Englished by Ihon Frampton marchaunt. (Want more info? Check out the record on Hamnet.)

In doing her description of the book, my student noticed something funny about the headlines. They are set up to do something fairly typical: the book is divided into three parts, and the headlines tell you which part you are reading, as shown here:

“The first parte of the thynges that” is on the left-hand side of the opening, with the conclusion of the phrase on the other side of the gutter: “thei bryng from the West Indias.”

The fun part is what happens on the left. On most of the pages, this part of the phrase appears as you would expect:

But sometimes, it goes a bit askew:

or:

or even:

All these mistakes happen only in the first part of the book (although there are other errors in the headlines in the second and third parts). “Thei” is obviously a slip from the phrase’s continuation and appears on signatures A1v, D1v, and F1v. “They” is a similar mistake; it appears on D3v and F3v. It’s not connected to “thei”–by which I mean, it’s not some sort of correction of “thei”, which wouldn’t make sense anyway, because “thei” is spelled perfectly acceptably according to early modern standards, as evidenced by the fact that it’s spelled that way on the other side of the gutter. No, I know it’s not a correction of “thei” because both mistakes appear on the outer formes of the D and the G gatherings: “thei” on D1v/G3v with “they” on D3v/G3v. In other words, they were both in use at the same time. (If this doesn’t make sense, go back and practice your quarto folding again.)

My favorite, though, is the last one–“thnt”–which appears with the greatest frequency, on signatures B2v, C1v, G2v, and H2v. What in the world is “thnt”? It’s “that” when someone has accidentally put an “n” in with the “a”s when he was redistributing the type. A good compositor would touch-set, just as a good typist touch-types. You don’t look at where your fingers are on the keyboard; you look at what it is you are typing. If you’re copying something (typing notes up from a book, for instance), you’re looking at the book, not at your fingers or your typewriter computer screen. When you’re grabbing type from the case and reading the manuscript that you’re setting, you’re not only not looking at each letter as you put it in the composing stick, even if you were to glance at it, it’d be a mirror image.

And that, my friends, is one of the reasons you proof your work.

the small joys of looking at books

Take a gander at this book I was looking at today:

Boyer’s The compleat French-master, 1699, Folger Shakespeare Library, Call Number: 263- 520q

Can you see what’s going on here? It looks at first glance like the top page has been folded back, revealing the text of the previous leaf. But that’s not it. You’re looking at the verso side of sig. H4 and nothing else.

Can you see now that it’s only one leaf?

Here’s an image of what this leaf looks like in other copies of this book:

 

And now do you see what’s happened? During printing, this leaf got folded over in the press, and the inside of the fold missed the type (that’s the blank streak) and the outer part of the fold was, once unfolded, misaligned. Print the image off and fold it to see for yourself!

Here’s the recto side of the leaf:

Boyer’s The compleat French-master, Folger Shakespeare Library, Call Number: 263- 520q

You can see the crease from the fold, but since this side was already printed, there’s no misalignment of the text.

I love this detail in this book. It’s not really significant, it’s just a tiny reminder that the book is a made objects, and that in making objects, things happen and sometimes leave their traces. It’s one of the tiny joys I find in looking at books–not reading them, but looking at them.

That’s it for my post. My new theory is to stick with the short and sweet. Now that the Folger allows readers (and staff) to snap their own photos, I’m determined to share more of the tidbits that I come across. I’ll still do the longer posts, but at least this way I won’t have such long periods of silence in between!

(A shout-out here to the cataloger who created the entry for this book. As with many items in the Folger’s collections, this has a wonderfully detailed record, including the information that this fold was to be found. You can see the record for yourself–you’ll notice that the book is full of other nice details. And the next time you encounter a cataloger, make sure you buy them a drink. Or chocolate. Or both.)

reading blanks

A while back, Whitney Trettien posted about a reference she’d come across to an intriguing book called “The First of April: a blank poem in commendation of the suppos’d author of a poem lately publish’d, call’d Ridotto, or, Downfal of masquerades.” Whitney wasn’t able to see the work itself–the ESTC record lists copies only at NYU and Penn–but when I was up in Philadelphia last month, I stopped in at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library to take a look.

It is, as Whitney indicates, a curious thing. What makes it curious is that this is a “blank poem” that is not blank in the sense of “blank verse”, which is the way in which Richard Steere’s 1713 work uses the phrase:

Rather, “The First of April” (probably published around 1724) is blank in the sense that the pages are blank: as Foxon notes, “The poem is indeed blank; all that is printed is a dedication to ‘No Body’ on pp.iii-viii, and footnotes on pp.9-11.”

Here are some shots of what the book looks like. At the top of my post is a shot of the title page; that is followed by six pages of a dedication “To No Body” and signed “The Free Agent.” Facing the last page of the dedication is the first page of the Poem:

That’s a bit blurry, but you can see the layout of the page: a woodcut and title, with footnotes indicated in the otherwise blank body, and provided at the bottom of the page. Here’s a clearer picture of the footnotes to the first page of the blank poem:

The next page opening, with the second and third (and last) pages of the poem:

Again, an enlargement of the notes:

 

There are some funny jokes in here. “Finis” as “A learned Latin Amen to all Books whatever” isn’t bad. I like the joke about Tetragrammaton, not so much the part about it being hard to pronounce, and that’s why Jews don’t say G-d’s name, but the fact that this blank poem refers to the impossibility of writing and the gap between how something is written and how it is pronounced.

Blankness is clearly central to this poem, and Whitney pulls out some of the connotations of that blankness perfectly:

So what is this “queer little book” doing? Paper was still expensive around this time, we’re told. It would have made up the bulk of any printer’s expenses in producing a book. Studies in marginalia, like Will Sherman’s Used Books, show how earlier Renaissance readers often exploited the blank paper in books as writing pads; and why paper-intensive projects, like John Foxe’s commonplace book of 1,200 all-but-blank pages, were such a risk for printers. (Foxe’s commonplace book failed, the unsold sheets recycled to print two later texts — take a look at Sherman’s discussion around page 138 of Used Books). Although produced over a century later, this blank poem still seems a “waste” economically, especially for an April Fool’s joke.

And clearly “blankness” isn’t being theorized the way it is in, say, Mallarmé. Here, the “First of April” is the blank — the Ridotto it “commends” is the blank — in short, blankness is sarcasm; it signifies the nothingness and “No Body” of what it’s supposed to celebrate. It’s a conceptual poem that exploits its medium, but doesn’t, it seem, rise to the level of a “poetics of blankness.” Which is probably why I’m drawn to it. It’s absence isn’t theorized presence, but stands for simply absence itself. A No Thing ironically made known through the very “thingness” — the necessary “thingness” — of itself.

I think she’s right in that there is something very material about the blankness of this poem. The footnotes highlight that in part, calling attention to the missing poem that is and is not at the center of “First of April.” But there’s another blank in this pamphlet that I find more compelling, one that Whitney didn’t get to see because, as she concludes, for her the poem’s blankness works in a literal way:

Of course, all this is written about a poem I’ve never seen firsthand — whose existence to me is no more than a constellation of bibliographical citations. In other words, the blank poem is blank to me, blank to scholarship, blank to all but the very few who have left traces of its presence in their own work. Difficult to reproduce and impossible to anthologize, the very absence of text makes its material presence necessary, since its physical form bears the weight of signification. 

But since I happened to be heading to Philadelphia and since I like to go to rare book libraries, this book is a little less, and a little more blank for me. Look at the final page:

It is blank. Not a blank with the rhetorical flourishes of notes and headlines and page numbers. It’s just blank. It’s the last page and there’s nothing on it, except for the pencil traces left by a cataloger on the very bottom of the page and the bleed-through from the recto side. What should we do with this blank space? We don’t read it the same way as the blanks talked about in the Dedication or printed as the text of the poem. I don’t think it is being used as a form of sarcasm. If it is, what would it be making fun of? Or, to ask it another way, why is this page blank? I’m used to books that fill up their sheets of paper completely, laying out the text so it doesn’t spill onto a new sheet, or filling out a gathering with advertisements. This book, however, seems to be made of one and a half sheets. Assuming it is a quarto, as the catalogue indicates (I didn’t pull out the tools to double-check this), you’d expect to find it made of pages in multiples of 8 (4 leaves or 8 pages to a sheet). But this has 12 pages. That’s 4 extra pages, which is, of course, half of a sheet; we can assume that the other half-sheet was printed with the same 4 pages, so that it would take 3 sheets to print 2 books. Still, why so many blank spaces? If I’m remembering correctly that the verso of the title page is blank (I don’t know why I didn’t take a photo of that), then 2 of the 12 pages are blank. That’s 1/6th of the book that’s empty.
That blank hasn’t gone unrecorded–it’s in the catalogue’s description of the book, with the bracketed “[1]” in the ESTC and with the helpful explanation added in Penn’s record, “(last page blank)”. I haven’t been across the street to the Library of Congress to look if “First of April” is in ECCO, but if it is, I wonder if the last page is reproduced as part of the facsimile? If it’s hard to reproduce blanks, it’s even harder to reproduce blanks that are outside of the text. And it can be even harder to know how to make sense of the blanks that aren’t surrounded by text. Are they part of what we should be reading? Physical bibliographers would certainly “read” its presence, but what about others of us who study books? What levels of blankness do we read and what levels do we not see?
A final note: I’m grateful that Whitney stumbled on this poem and that she wrote about it so well that it sparked my interest. If you haven’t read her post on it, go do that, and then check out the rest of her great blog, diapsalmata. And thanks, too, to John Pollack at Penn’s Rare Books Library for making my quick trip there so easy and enjoyable!

DIY newsbook

No, I don’t mean it’s time to write your own news sheet newsbook. It’s time to fold your ownnewsbook! Why would you want to do this? Well, for one thing, it’s a handy way to understand and demonstrate to others the general principle of early modern format: multiple pages are printed onto a single sheet in the correct order so that when folded, they appear sequentially. It’s like magic! Or, um, folding.

Above is a numbered example of the same newsbook that I used as an image in my last post. The red numbers are page numbers: folded in the right way, you’d get an 8-page booklet in the order indicated. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the actual news sheet doesn’t have page numbers. Instead, there are signatures: at the bottom of the first page is a tiny, blotted “L”; at the bottom of the 5th page is a tiny “L3″ (the “L2″ has been cut off at some point when the page was trimmed). These are signature marks that count off by leaves. What’s a leaf, you ask? It’s a physical unit of paper: when you turn the page in a book, you are actually turning a leaf of paper. Early modern printers would have thought in terms of sheets and leaves, not pages, when they were figuring out how to print a work. Depending on the imposition (how the text is laid out on the sheet), you could end up with different numbers of leaves: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, 24. A quarto imposition results in a sheet of paper being turned into 4 leaves; there are 2 pages to each leaf (a recto side and a verso side), so there are 8 pages in all. The blue letters and numbers show the signatures. One thing that throws off beginners is understanding how recto and verso relate to each other. They do not mean right and left but front and back. When this pamphlet is open so that the 5th page is on the right-hand side of the opening, and the 4th page is on the left-hand side, the 5th page is the recto side of the third leaf in this gathering (L5r, for short), and the 4th page is the verso side of the second leaf in this gathering (L4v). Gatherings are numbered (well, lettered) in order so that the printed sheets of paper can be assembled in the right order in the final book. This is the “L” gathering, and it would be preceded by the “K” gathering and followed by the “M.” Once you start thinking in terms of leaves and gatherings, which are the units that are most helpful for printers, rather than pages, which are primarily useful for readers, it’s pretty easy to keep it all straight.

You can follow this link and print off the two images as a single sheet of paper (or print separately, of course, and then run them through a copier to make it two-sided) and practice folding it as a quarto yourself. When you’re done, you can try folding it into a tiny little pressman’s cap, following the instructions that appear in this lovely piece, “The Newspaper Man is Defunct,” from The Cape Cod today.

By the way, my syllabus is now done(ish) and can be found online in pdf form.

Correction: The spelling of recto has been changed to reflect its actual spelling. Oops.
Correction 2: I have corrected my usage of “news sheet” to reflect the more accurate term “newsbook” throughout the post. See the comments below for an explanation of the difference between the two!