Reading the Material (culture of books, that is)

I am going to be publishing a version of my lecture notes for a theory course as blog posts, because, let’s face it, the writing style for blogs is more entertaining than academic writing and it’s vastly easier to include images and video in this space than in, for example, Word.

Print culture is a relatively new field that has a long history. Seems like a contradiction – right? How can something be new but have a long history? What I mean is that capital “P” Print and capital “C” Culture as a field in literary studies is fairly new – around the late 1970s, print culture studies caught on or gained ethos with the publication of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations of Early Modern Europe. The book radically changed how literary scholars thought about the advent of print and its influence.

The print history/culture/production of a book is just as important as its content, but this maxim has not penetrated the academic study as fully as it should. Without print culture, would we understand Christina Rossetti as a radical member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or would she still languish as just another frustrated nineteenth-century female poet? Her literary ambitions and profound influence on her brother, Dante Gabriel, were not made clear until Dr. Lorraine Janzen published extensively on the print culture of the Rossettis and their compatriots.

However, a good deal of undergraduate literary studies is still stuck in the mire of looking solely at content (the linguistic code) rather than the bibliographic code. The bibliographic code of a book includes the page layout, book design, and typeface (I strongly suggest taking a look at Jerome McGann’s The Textual Condition, after all, linguistic and bibliographic code are his neologisms). The bibliographic code also encompasses sociological concerns as well, including the ideal audience (or projected audience), price, print run, and, of course, the publisher. The publisher can make a massive difference in how a book is produced and even read.

Days of Augusta

The importance of analyzing the bibliographic code is made clear if we consider Jean Speare’s well-intentioned book Days of Augusta about the life and times of Schuswap Elder Augusta Tappage; unfortunately, it was produced in such a way that the book did much more harm than good. The black and white photographs, for example, positioned Augustaas part of the “past” rather than a vital part of her community. Through the visual rhetoric of the book, the reader comes to understand the book as a historical document. The publisher Douglas & McIntyre, clearly produced this book as a traditional ethnography that records a past about to be lost rather than share the wisdom of a Schuswap Elder. The bibliographic and visual code of this text stifles Augusta’s lively voice by using a western integration code. As you may know from reading Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s Reading Images, the integration code comprises the words, symbols and images that construct a culture’s epistemological systems. The integration code allows members of a culture to easily comprehend art, literature and other forms of social communication.

I have to wonder what the bibliographic code of the book would have been had it been published by an Indigenous press, like Theytus Books!

I think you can see how studying the print and visual culture of a book illuminates its meaning and its social and cultural function (or work).


2 thoughts on “Reading the Material (culture of books, that is)”

  1. Reblogged this on It's all kids stuff. and commented:
    There’s a lot more to reading books than just reading for the enjoyment of it- even in kids books-It may seem silly that I’m talking so much about children’s literature, but there is a lot more to it than simply stories; the literature has to be thought of in the context, the time it was written, the culture it was a part of, we can’t dismiss something as ‘simple’ just because it isn’t something that is meant for ‘our audience’ and if I have to be blunt- a writer really shouldn’t put age ranges on books. (I despise those age suggestions on the back cover of a book- ‘Ages 8-12, Ages 9 and up’ There’s nothing more insulting than being told ‘These books aren’t for you.’ Reading is for everybody, as long as they enjoy the books and learn something from it, does it matter if they’re ‘too old’ or ‘too young’? I think the people who do this aren’t looking deep enough into the culture of the books. There can be great things to find, but only if you look hard enough.

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