Today’s post features two accounts from students at The George Washington University who are in this semester’s Folger Undergradaute Seminar.
When I first heard about the Folger Shakespeare Library Undergraduate Seminar I was finishing up my freshman year at The George Washington University; from that moment on I couldn’t wait to be a senior. At a time when e-readers were becoming popular, getting a chance to learn about how books were made and to be surrounded by them seemed like the best thing I had ever heard of. It is about a month and a half into the semester and I am thrilled to say that this class has been everything I was hoping it would be.
Coming in each week knowing that we’ll be looking at and handling books that are hundreds of years old is a great feeling. It is even better when I hear someone else’s excitement mirroring mine and know that I won’t be considered weird for exclaiming over an intricate woodcut or a tiny fist pointing at an important passage. But this class has done more than show me the incredible books in the library’s collection; it has taught me how to really look at them. If in August you had asked me to write a 1500-word paper describing a 47-page book I would probably have laughed and asked if 200 words would do. As it turns out, 1500 words was not enough.
For our first assignment I had the chance to work on a translation by Elizabeth Tudor of a French poem, A godly medytacyon of the christen sowle, concerninge a loue towardes God and hys Christe. As a French literature major and lover of Tudor history, I thought that this would be interesting simply because of the subject matter. After spending hours carefully poring over each page I realized that this book was interesting on so many different levels. What fascinated me the most were the notes printed in the margins. They functioned as notes of what was being discussed in that part of the text. Getting the opportunity to work with this beautiful little book while sitting in the reading room of the Library was incredible. I can honestly say that this is the one class where coming in to sit and work on a project is always exciting, because sometimes in a world of Kindles and Nooks, it’s nice to come and sit down with a good book.
We are English, history, French and various humanities majors. We felt uncomfortable, at first, about making any noise louder than a whisper in the Old Reading Room. The first pre-1700 books we touched (with our hands scrubbed clean) were treated as if they were liable to disintegrate at any moment. Yet, as we become more comfortable with the library and early modern books, I realize that the undergraduate Folger seminar appeals to not only my budding historical curiosity, but also other interests that I never expected to find an outlet for there.
I’ve been interested in graphic design for years, laying out pages for school newspapers, but didn’t expect to draw any connection between that hobby and this course. The way the course has already taught us how to think about the early modern printing of books has me curious about the birth of design in early modern books.
We have looked at the first approaches ever toward typefaces, variations in font, implementation of graphics (woodblock prints and copperplate engravings), and various decisions regarding page layout, such as the size of margins and tracking (spacing between letters). I can’t help but be reminded of countless nights I’ve spent on Adobe InDesign, manipulating these things with infinitely greater ease.
Trying to imagine how early modern printers make the objects of books, I noticed a strange thing in the book I studied for our first assignment. The Booke of hunting (George Gascoigne) is interesting for any number of reasons (its dear fur binding certainly included), but after closer inspection, there is an inconsistency in the look of the initial capital letters at the start of chapters. Some are intricately carved woodblocks of significant size, while others are smaller but a heavy gothic type (or simple woodblock?), while others are large roman type or small roman type (only the height of two normal liens of text). What seems like such a simple thing to manipulate today, and so inconsistent here, might indicate that even in intricately made or expensively bound books, the printers were restricted by the resources available in their print shop (like initial letters) and worked with what they had.
If thinking more carefully about books in the seminar so far is any indication, I won’t be able to look at any books the same by the end.