Sometimes it’s fun just to look at books without worrying what they are and who printed them and what the text says. And sometimes, when you do that, you notice all sorts of ways in which they’re weird—they mix manuscript and print together, they play with layout and movement, they come in different shapes and sizes, we find them in unexpected places. And so I give you a slideshow of early modern works that might destabilize assumptions about what early books were. If you click on the first of the images below, it will switch into a slideshow view that will let you see the pictures and read some brief captions that might spark some thoughts. To find out more about the works I’ve shown, you can pull up
the images in our Digital Image Collection, which will let you explore them in close detail and to view their catalog records.
Or, you can just surf and enjoy!
We look at this book and see annotation. But can we see it instead as manuscript? (It’s cataloged that way.)
Sometimes margins aren’t enough, and blank pages need to be added and filled. Is this print or manuscript?
And where does this book end?
It’s possible to think of the press as creating a boom not only in printing but in handwriting.
With printed forms proliferating, so do blank spaces that need to be filled.
We’re used to thinking of early printed books as being finished by hand, with guide letters and spaces left for rubricators to add the final touches.
But here the spaces are still waiting; is this book complete or incomplete?
This almanac doesn’t need the attention of a rubricator (its red-letter days are printed) but the blank space for its users still waits to be filled.
Sometimes blank spaces are deployed to more rhetorical effect.
Of course, readers don’t only write notes in their books. They (or the people they hire) color books.
But as this volvelle reminds us, what was once color becomes discoloration, and what we look at today is not what early users would have looked at.
There’s no shortage of ways in which users could make their books their own, including sewing.
The layout of pages can be both obvious and deeply weird: are diagrams marginal?
Parallel-text translation is nothing new.
But working with five languages presents different challenges, especially when some of them read right to left.
If commentary is about a text …
… should it surround a text rather than sit below it?
Sometimes layout conveys meaning in and of itself: a humble son writes to his powerful mother.
And a humble author dedicates his book to a powerful queen.
Sometimes unconventional typography seems straightforward: the shape of the poem mirrors the subject.
But do you turn the book on its side to read the poem from top to bottom?
Or do you read the left-hand page first and then the right?
What’s the proper orientation of this page?
Or of this opening?
On this map, the road’s orientation as a line on a page takes precedence over its orientation as a path through a terrain.
It’s not orientation that is in question here, but the ability to feed the paper through the press.
We don’t always remember to think of sheets of paper instead of leaves (here’s a sheet).
But leaves of a paper come from sheets of paper (here’s an almanac that stayed uncut, even as it was annotated).
Sometimes we find sheets of paper surviving in unexpected places, like in bindings.
In fact, bindings are good places to find discarded texts, some of which turn out to be the only surviving copies.
Sometimes books are astonishing in their survival …
… especially when they’re made up of bits and flaps …
… and little moveable pieces …
… that somehow never got torn off and lost.
Some books are big.
Some books are tiny. (Though what does tiny mean when it fills up your screen?)
Some are tiny and oblong.
Some are tiny and tall.
Some books are tiny with big pictures.
But even big books aren’t always big enough.
We usually remember that books are made from paper (and ink).
But they’re also made from wood.
(Yes: this is the woodblock that printed that woodcut.)
Of course, paper is yummy (and bookworms aren’t only a metaphor)
A book made from paper and chalk to create erasable pages.
A book made from paper and wood and horn. (This isn’t a book in the technical sense of a codex, but in the popular sense of something to read.)
There are some things that paper bound into books does really well—it can contain and organize large amounts of text, here making it easy to flip between the New Testament and the Book of Psalms.
But loose leaves can be organized in different ways—here a vellum deed is cut into three parts that can only be reunited with each other, with the markings and wavy lines creating a security system guarding against fraud.
Sheets can also be joined together to turn into long rolls.
And one side of a piece of a paper can serve as a letter …
… while the other side folds over itself to become the envelope.
But remember, books aren’t flat …
manuscripts can have heft …
and blank spaces have meaning.