August 5, 2013

Compile and create: Early book collecting examined in Jeffrey Todd Knight’s ‘Bound to Read’

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"Bound to Read," by Jeffrey Todd KnightJeffrey Todd Knight is a University of Washington assistant professor of English and author of the new book “Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature,” published in May by University of Pennsylvania Press. He answered a few questions about the book for UW Today.

Q: What is the central concept behind this book?

A. The central idea is that the era of the book (the one everybody is worried about now, in the digital age) is actually far shorter than we’d imagined.

“The book” — as a mechanically produced cloth- or paper-bound thing with a uniform title, author, and subject classification separating it from other books — dates from around 1830, in the English-speaking world at least.

Before that, books were more like raw materials: stacks of sheets, part-editions, stitched bundles, etc., to be made into bound things if the reader or retailer wanted them like that, and not according to any prescribed system (i.e., they could make and remake them however they wanted).

Especially in the Renaissance, the first real printed book culture in the west, there was a lot of experimentation and uncertainty in the physical makeup of books. My book argues that this uncertainty led to a lot of the creative impulses that scholars typically associate with Renaissance literature.

Q; You say that in the Renaissance, compiling was “part of the everyday demands of book ownership,” and that “to compile was to create.” How did book owners go about this in the 16th and 17th centuries?

A: Well, in the later part of the 17th century, things were starting to change, but early in that century and before, there was no real standard way to assemble a book. The closest we get to a modern ready-bound book in the period (i.e., the situation familiar to us, in which the reader buys a book in a bookshop, and that book looks like all other books in the print run, having been designed and bound by the publisher in consultation with the author) are the bound part-editions that publishers would sometimes issue based on exceptional consumer demand for the title.

Most other books — and especially vernacular literary books — were issued to retailers in sheets or loosely stitched, and then it was up to the retailer, or often the reader, to assemble them. Bindings were expensive relative to printed pages themselves, so books that were bound usually included a number of titles, even different authors and genres brought together in a customized assemblage.

So “compilation” was in many ways the norm; readers and retailers had a lot of creative power in the formation of books, and authors (relatively speaking) had very little. In theory, if you wrote a book of poetry in the Renaissance, your book could as easily be bound and read with a bundle of incendiary political pamphlets as with other books of poetry.

Jeffrey Todd Knight

Jeffrey Todd Knight

Q: As book compilation and creation has changed over the centuries, how have these changes affected the literature — the writing — itself? 

A: We’re still figuring this out, and I’m hoping that “Bound to Read” engages others working in the different periods of literary history so we can get a better sense of how things like style, genre and imagination change with book assembly and classification technologies.

For my part, I’ve been surprised to find that Renaissance writing and literature has a lot more in common with Medieval writing and literature than scholars have imagined. Like Medieval works, Renaissance works did not have firm boundaries — Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” incorporated scenes from Thomas Middleton’s play “The Witch” and Philip Sidney’s “Arcadia” ended in mid-sentence, to take two prominent examples.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the mechanization of binding technology in the early 19th century had something to do with the rise of the novel (conceived as a firmly bounded work rather than as a serially published one, as before). And of course, in digital culture we’re seeing a new “unboundedness” in writing and literature, among other things. But I’m just speculating here.

Q: Your description of Renaissance literature as “a thing to actively shape, expand and resituate as one desired” does sound oddly fitting to the modern reader. Are we entering a new era of compiling our own volumes, or their digital counterparts?

Yes, I always say that the readers growing up now in digital culture (where remixing is a valid form of creativity, where custom playlists and loose songs have replaced albums, where literary anthologies are being broken up into shorter, customizable eBooks) have a lot more in common with Shakespeare’s literary culture than my generation did.

This surprises and sometimes upsets people, I guess because there’s so much invested in criticizing new modes of literacy and the so-called decline of the book. But the truth is more complicated than that.

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