2014 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book
Books in the Larger World of Objects
Sunday, June 15 through Friday, June 20, 2014
This seminar will attempt to reposition books (and book history) within the larger world of objects and the disciplines devoted to their examination: in particular, social anthropology, material culture studies, and the kinds of philosophy and history of science sometimes characterized as “thing theory.” The latter disciplines have largely ignored the book in their attempts to describe and theorize the relations between persons and things, while book history, despite its many achievements, has all too often remained wedded to concepts that these other fields have productively critiqued or moved beyond. By putting these various “thing disciplines” into conversation with one another, we aim to devise a set of productive new methods for book history, ones that will join its traditional archival richness and descriptive precision with a more sustained engagement with four central issues:
- the agency that books often seem to have—or to have imputed to them. Pursuing this issue will allow us to describe, in new ways, the relations between books and their readers, writers, and other producers. In recognizing how books are participants in their own environments—things that change the other things around them—we can begin to better understand the communities, networks, and assemblages that books, both through their circulation and through their removal from circulation, can call into being.
- the complexly layered temporality and geography that help define (and are, in turn, defined by) the materiality of books. This line of inquiry will permit us to think, in a sophisticated and rigorous manner, about how books move through time and space. Books—and the materials from which they’re made—can be used to secure a relation to the past (including their own pasts), but they can also be used to distance ourselves from history or to mark sharp discontinuities between then and now and what is yet to come. Similarly, books bear the traces of their passage across different geographical spaces and through multiple hands in ways that can both bind together and underscore the distance between various locales and cultures—all of which invites us to ask what, if anything, makes a book distinctly “American.”
- how that agency, temporality, and geography shape the various, and sometimes conflicting, kinds of value ascribed to—or supposedly inherent in—books. Taking up this question will help us to reconceive the history of reading, collecting, and other uses for books in ways that go beyond ungeneralizable case studies or bland overarching formulations. In reconsidering the relation between the kinds of value—e.g., aesthetic, economic, sentimental—assigned to books and the materials from which they’re made (and the ways in which the former can reinforce or seem divorced from the latter), we may better theorize the relation between value and quantity that has long haunted the history of the book: e.g., does a unique copy (say, Benjamin Franklin’s printing of Pamela) really demand to be considered differently than a book that survives by the thousands? If so, how and why, and what can that teach us about the place of books as material objects in everyday life?
- the ways in which our relations with books and other printed matter cannot always fit neatly within the stock binaries of subject and object or individual and collective. Books, as objects appealing to all of the senses, not only ask to be read in certain ways, but also solicit activities, both playful and utilitarian, that do not include reading. We’ll explore how much these solicitations—and their converse: felt “misuses” of books—depend upon the affordances of particular materials and formats and what happens when books present themselves as usable, manipulable objects (patterns for sewing, blank forms for completing, pop-ups for opening).
By repositioning the materiality of the book, generously defined, within the larger world of objects, and doing so amidst the astonishing resources of the American Antiquarian Society, this seminar aims for nothing less than a collective reimagining of what book history (and the other “thing disciplines”) can do. Come join us on what promises to be an extraordinary intellectual adventure.
The seminar will be of interest to graduate students, librarians, and college and university faculty interested in the fields of book history and print culture, literary history, material culture, anthropology, and other associated fields.