Paper Consciousness: Professor Deidre Lynch Performs a “Bookish Ontology” on the Nineteenth-Century Album

Recently the English department at UW-Madison hosted Professor Deidre Lynch of Harvard to present new work that appears to evolve from her last publication Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015, Chicago UP). You should recognize the guest lecturer as one of the most influence contributors to 19th c. and Romantic studies. Earlier works remain frequently cited in contemporary scholarship, most notably her work on Austen and The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Cultural and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998). In consideration of blog readers interests in book history, archival methods, material culture, and all things 19th c. I’ve provide a brief summary of the talk title “Paper Slips: The Nineteenth-Century Album and Other Misadventures in Book-keeping” and offer comments on how the work Prof. Lynch presented could inspire scholarship to come, or at least re-think what we write in our diaries.

Summary

“ ’Tis pleasant sure to see oneself in print. A book’s a book although there’s nothing in’t.” — Byron

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 7.49.47 AM
A page from Eliza Haywood’s 1817 album, courtesy of Manchester Metropolitan University Archives

Through examination of over 100 “blank books” ““whose pages incite not reading, but writing (as well as, e.g., sketching, painting, decoupage, and embroidery)” created between 1790-1850 Lynch’s work begins by asking us to imagine the book object as literally and conceptually fragile. The blank book is essentially a scrapbook that’s created over an undetermined time-span through a collective process. These books are known as “albums”, and entail “detachable and re-attachable slips and scraps “from “archiving, excerpting, transcribing, clipping, and de- and re-contextualizing.” Albums serve as museums constructed by social circles as the album required the “genius of others” to fill in the blank pages with original poetry/prose, images, drawings, political cartoons, excerpts from published work, and objects such as human hair. As any good museum artifact, that is to say one that poses questions (see Keats’ urn), the album always appears as a fragment. There’s no set narrative beginning or ending, just all middle that disallows conceptual synthesis. Albums may sound like radical spaces of early avant-garde experimentation, but funny enough Lynch found albums to be highly conventional from her sample. One in every six albums contained an excerpt from Byron, but who can blame them really?

Such discoveries prompts inquiries of book ontology and methodology: What is the blank book to book history and the category of the book? How we treat blank books as objects of analysis? How can studying blank books inform our approach to printed book history and current investments in digitizing archives? To begin to the answer these questions, let’s turn to one of the overarching takeaways from the lecture was the problem the album poses for periodization. Though albums may contain individual dates on each page this doesn’t equate to any set time frame, and some albums appear to have been put together over a span of 70 years. For those attached to periodization the album is always “behaving badly” as Lynch puts it. The printed book object masks and reduces the rich and long life that hides behind the mass produced copyright year stamped on the title page. Questions of authorship and historical context are settled as soon as the publisher stamps the book, hiding the process of the product. Therefore, let’s embrace “paper consciousness” and start with the ground zero point of material book conception— the fragile paper page. Pages can and are torn, cut-up, hidden, layered with other pages, replaced, subject to coffee-spills and weathering. When I spill coffee on one of my multiple second-hand Keats collections I whimper versus the pouring tears of graduate student frustration when I spill coffee on my hand-written notes about Keats.

Since Elizabeth Eisenstein’s 1979 study into the pervasive and preservative impact of printed texts in Early Modern Europe, he Printing Press as an Agent of Change,  we’ve accepted how publicly dispersed data is accepted as a method of communication with an indeterminate amount of readers over time and space. Printed texts become imperishable, which is only further complicated and distanced from the author after the implement of copy right laws. It seems to me the collective authorship of the album alludes to another use for preservation, not that of data or story, but something like a keep-sake box for a social group. Family papers doesn’t capture the sporadic form and content exhibited within an album. Furthermore family papers are used for documentation of “practical” information rather than creative output. Though the album is a unique singular object it follows an unchartable temporal and spatial trajectory. An album can move from author, to reader, to author(s) to readers, to an old dusty box, and then picked up again by another author. An album is never finished, even when the pages run out loose-leaf paper can be slipped in and pages torn out. Rather than the life of a printed book moves from author to printer to readers. We should question and customize our methodological approach to the album as an object and that was and is always growing. Experimental methodological approaches may include the treatment of album as a collective art-work, a Romantic fragment, cultural anthropological object study, or even a calculated analysis of repeated or unique references in the album.

Further Thoughts

For those working in material culture and/or affect studies the album proves to be worthwhile as an unique object of study due to the emotion embedded through handwriting, added pages, correspondences between authors of a single volume, and the conditions of the how the album has survived until the present day. Are certain albums more worth saving than others? Blank books are especially fruitful for those interested in manuscripts, correspondences, and social circles.

Blank books compete in popularity against printed books, as Lynch reminds us, “think of the moleskin bound journals at book store check-out counters.” How and where have blank books gone in the contemporary moment, from check-out counters, nightstands, to the digital format. We may even think of blogs as albums of their own. While I’m grateful digitization hides the numerous edits and drafts of this blog post I’m always losing some form of thought as I hit the backspace. In addressing the question of method the album requires first-hand experience, true archival work that the digital humanities can never replace the reality of the page.

What’s lost in the digitizing of album, whether a blog or process of transposing  printed texts to digital formats is the physical materiality of the paper. What kind of paper, texture, size, quality? When does the “paper slip”, and when are we “slipping the paper”?