NASSR 2016 Rapid Response: Final Day!

Sunday’s Tweets about NASSR 2016 via Storify

So here we are, at the end of NASSR 2016, with all of us likely traveling across the U.S. and Canada this evening, or on our way across the Atlantic or Pacific, heading back to our home institutions. Hopefully we’re re-invigorated with an exceptional amount of insight, inspiration, and innovation that will carry into our research and teaching over this coming academic year.

For me, today’s panels provided a surprising amount of vim and vigor on this, the final morning of our annual conference. When I imagine the Sunday morning of any conference, I envision a small gaggle of weary academics dragging their feet and their suitcases to the free morning coffee buffet before plopping in their seats to process, with half-closed eyelids, the final papers that our poor presenters must still deliver after the three action-packed days. To my pleasant surprise, however, both rooms were animated, engaged, and quite lively! Here’s some of what I heard… 

In a continuation of yesterday’s first Book History Caucus session, today’s roundtable on “Intersections of Manuscripts and Print” featured short presentations from Jeff Cowton, Michael Macovski, Michelle Levy, Lindsey Eckert, and Regina Hewitt. With both research and pedagogical applications, these five brilliant projects gave us all food for thought in regards to the ways that we understand (or fail to understand) the social and cultural contexts in which the texts that we read today in modern editions originally circulated at the turn of the nineteenth century.

What did a text feel like to hold and read? How was the material object originally put together? How did people correspond with one another or record their manuscript writings in notebooks? These and many other exciting queries connected their investigations.

Wordsworth Trust‘s curator Cowton first presented a wonderful powerpoint overview of the ways students and teachers are invited into Dove Cottage today to explore Romantic texts.

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage

Students can interact with manuscripts, bind their own notebooks, produce poems inspired by the Lake District, and much more. In contrast to the activities students might do in other rare collections or in their regular classrooms, Cowton remarked that the objective at Dove Cottage is pretty clear:

We only do in Grasmere those things that you can only do in Grasmere.

Taking us further into the archives, Macovski discussed the nineteenth-century practice of counterfeiting—er, making “facsimiles.” This was a legitimate profession, apparently! Represented by the likes of John Harris, facsimilists were hired by collectors and even the British Library to remedy errors or repair missing pages from “imperfect” books in their collections. If letters, words, or entire pages were rendered unusable in some way, these skillful artists would re-create printed pages by using pen and ink and reconstructing text by hand. Macovski noted that these copies are so good that he genuinely cannot tell the difference between an original and a replication, and even the British Library had begun asking Harris to “sign” his forgeries so that they knew which ones were originals. Can you tell the difference??

Pen-and-ink facsimile (left) and original document (right)
Pen-and-ink facsimile (left) and original document (right)

Macovski’s larger theoretical implication was that these hybridized texts challenge our notions of originality, doubling, and mechanical reproduction in the era. With self-conscious identifiable markers added to the forged texts, these facsimilists were not attempting to deceive, but still created a self-reflexive layering of texts that combine into a new kind of aggregate form that defies our sense of a holistic, unified, and stable text.

Taking up this theme of textual (in)stability, Levy offered her bibliographic research on a collection of publishers’ letters from the early Victorian period. In this visual tour, she presented a new style of printed paper–the letterhead–that arose around the 1830s and destabilized what, for our period, had been a relatively consistent system of handwritten correspondence. As print began to infiltrate this previously handwritten medium, it shifted what had before been a “stable, material organism” with certain generic conventions. Nineteenth-century letterhead appeared in corporate and business contexts, and while clerks could add information within the form of the letterhead, these pages transformed the way correspondence functioned by depersonalizing and formalizing a previously personal, intimate form of communication. Shifting the boundaries between public and private, these new half-script/half-printed letterheads reflected larger cultural shifts, Levy suggests.

Fortunately, Cowton had brought with him a handout that served well to illustrate the handwritten letters that Levy was discussing!

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Next up was Eckert’s work on book binding, an aspect of book history that has remained relatively tangential in the field. She’s been examining almanacs, which were often circulated in cheap 1-shilling versions but sometimes owners opted to bind them singly or together.  When these material objects were bound specifically for individual users, one can discern much from that reader’s desire to have the original documents preserved. As with Macovski’s and Levy’s projects, Eckert noted the importance of annotations and alterations that readers would frequently make to the texts, adding to and amending the almanacs in order to create what she called an “ephemeral ethos” in which such annotations challenge the notion that a text might act as a stable repository of information. Eckert traces an “intentionality of resistance” in this willingness to test and adapt the information found within these bound volumes. Follow Eckert on Twitter for more on book-binding research!

Last but not least, ERR‘s co-editor Hewitt rounded off the presentations with some theoretical applications of these #bookhistory investigations. She suggested some ways in which life-writing intersected with the shift from mansucript to print states. She argued in particular that utopian inquiry engaged the reader of a printed text and operated through a mode of educational desire in which the recipient of the text imagines how he or she would act if his or her life were unfolding in a different world. Thus the printed text inspires a new narrativization of the self, inviting readers to re-narrativize themselves through these imagined parallel lives, especially in the genre of the Bildungsroman.

Moderator Nick Mason led a dynamic Q&A session in which the panelists discussed the future of book history as a field. With the sheer quantity of data left to be explored, much wide-open territory remains for scholars to engage in this work, and it shows no sign of slowing down. And with increasing digitization of resources and greater ease of access to facilities like those at Dove Cottage–where, as Cowton noted, you no longer need to have iron-clad references to get in the doors of the Jerwood Centre–we have even more exciting work to look forward to.

In summary – here are some key takeaways I gathered from the Book History roundtable:

  • This dynamic field of inquiry is now challenging notions of the text as an original, holistic, stable, and consistent entity.
  • The texts we study, whether poems or letters, were in many ways layered, hybridized documents, like primitive versions of a hypertext today. They were both interactive and changeable, with annotations and corrections made by hand often changing the original state of a printed object.
  • People liked writing in their books. A lot.
  • And most importantly: Understanding the material object makes students “better citizens of the world. Period.” (credit: Lindsey Eckert)

Tomorrow, I’ll post on the Pedagogy Contest panel, hosted by Romantic Circles, which had interesting overlaps with this book history panel and was, for me, perhaps the most useful hour-and-a-half out of the entire conference! But for now, off to bed…