A Discovery at Magdalene

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Great news yesterday that a large chunk of Mary Astell’s library has been discovered in the Old Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where it has undergone some expert analysis from the deputy librarian, Catherine Sutherland. Astell’s books are in some cases thickly annotated with her notes on contemporary scientific discoveries, and in others carry gift inscriptions that allow us to flesh out her circle of friends and colleagues.

Astell’s hand is wonderfully businesslike and serious as it sketches out the differences between Descartes and Democritus, or paraphrases details of the latest experiments in light and magnetism. I was particularly delighted by the explanation of why the bequest had disappeared from view, which was partly because scholars had been misdirected to Magdalen College, Oxford, rather than Magdalene College, Cambridge. Only in the nineteenth century was an ‘e’ added to the Cambridge name, to allow the two to be easily distinguished.

You can find the whole story, accompanied by wonderful images and commentary from several local luminaries, here.

History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2021

Seminar Series;

Thursday 25 February, 5 pm                                         

Angus Vine (Stirling)

‘The Mercantile Vade-Mecum: Portable Knowledge in the Early Modern World’   

Thursday 11 March, 5 pm

The Material Text of Activism

Hilary Powell and Daniel Edelstyn will discuss their performative protest Bank Job (https://bankjob.pictures/?r_done=1)

Attendees might want to watch a preview of Bank Job the Movie–showing on Friday 26th February at 7pm. See https://membership.bankjob.pictures/stream?r_done=1.

All seminars will be on Zoom–to register please contact Jason Scott-Warren (jes1003@cam.ac.uk)                                                                            

relational gestures / a post by Helen Magowan

Blog, Gallery;
Sasareishi, volume 1 f.12v-13r. 1713, Hasegawa Myōtei. Ebibunko. 

The first image in this blog post shows a page from a book published in 1713. In three volumes, it’s a collection of letters in the handwriting of a celebrity calligrapher called Hasegawa Myōtei. This page is part of a letter which, in heightened, literary language, advises someone to mend their bitter heart and be more like the willow tree which sways in the wind. The words vary between large and small, between thick rich lines and fine delicate ones; the forms are rounded and connected between letters and even between the vertical lines of text. The writing seems to drift downwards to the left, as if autumn leaves were falling in a gentle breeze.

This genre of publishing is called nyohitsu, the ‘woman’s brush’, and the books usually focus on letter-writing. The ‘woman’s brush’ extends to the style of writing which could also be used in commercial prose, and despite the name, it could be written by men as well as women. Nyohitsu was fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with hundreds of books being published and republished, but it fell out of favour in the nineteenth century and is no longer practiced. Premodern Japanese script is almost completely illegible to most modern readers, so texts such as these that haven’t been considered important enough to transcribe are inaccessible to researchers, even when they are in the digital collections of libraries. In my research, my first challenge has been simply to learn to read them.

2 The large dark text is read first, following the arrows. The reader returns to the beginning and reads the second layer, in the mid colour. The reader returns to the beginning for the third layer, in yellow.

The next problem is the tension between what is on the page, and how I work with it. If I simply transcribe what I see page by page, it gives me fragments of phrases that don’t connect to each other, because the letter extends across the pages before and after in ways that we don’t expect and I can’t easily represent. Image 2 shows how I experimented with colour coding and arrows to follow how the reader moves backwards and forwards through the pages of the book. But while this helps illustrate how to interact with the text, it is unhelpful for a close reading of what the text actually says. For that, I still need to turn it into a readable, searchable, copy-and-pasteable typographic transcription.  

This process of typographic transcription is an ongoing project for scholars of premodern Japan, but we shouldn’t make the same mistake that early western visitors to Japan did. Early modern Japan had a vibrant and mature publishing industry catering to many different markets, including the women who were buying nyohitsu manuals or borrowing them from libraries. The third image shows a bustling shop full of customers browsing the illustrated books. However western visitors didn’t recognise this highly developed print culture, because Japanese books were floppy, stored on their sides, and they were woodblock-printed. We need to remember that woodblock printing was not a technological limitation, and moveable type was not a technological advance. Ceramic and wooden moveable type had been invented in China in 1040, and metal moveable type in Korea in 1250 a full two hundred years before Gutenberg in 1450. Moveable type was broadly unsuited for most applications of the character script shared by China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, and woodblocks had advantages such as flexibility in combining text and image, and as the first image of the nyohitsu book shows, the ability to showcase the aesthetics of handwriting itself. 

3 A book shop. Circa 1802,  Katsushika Hokusai.Joan Elizabeth Tanney Bequest, LACMA 

The shift from xylography to typography didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, a period of huge change. The western powers had turned their attention to East Asia seeking new markets, and had shown they were willing to use force to get it. China’s ‘century of humiliation’ had already started with the loss of Hong Kong to Britain, and image 4 shows a treaty after their defeat by Russia. To avoid a similar fate, Japan urgently needed to be “modern” and “western”, and in the course of a few decades, Japan reorganised and revolutionised. This is the context for the shift to typography: all of the previous advantages of woodblock printing were now outweighed by the other imperatives. 

4 Treaty of Aigun. c. 1858 Vasily Romanov. N.I. Grodekov Khabarovsk Territorial Museum

Nyohitsu’s nineteenth-century disappearance is likely to be a complex picture, but its incompatibility with typography is clearly implicated. Japanese script had to fit the demands of moveable type: the numbers of letterforms were cut down, variation was eliminated and letters were disconnected from each other. Typography aims for repeatability, as well as transparency: we shouldn’t be distracted from the content of writing by how it looks. We understand of course that if we change fonts we get different effects, but the message remains the same. What we see with nyohitsu is different. It might look like a font, but acts like a linguistic register. What it looks like contains important information, telling us something about the writer, the reader, and the relationship between them, as well as what kind of situation the interaction is happening in. Nyohitsu expressed affective qualities like warmth, friendliness, and intimacy. The manuals contained letters that said things along the lines of “As the autumn blows a cool breeze, the sky is bright and clear. I send my greetings on the festival of Tanabata.” This is not interesting for its content, but for the material expression of a relational gesture. In nyohitsu script, this could express friendly affection. The same message in a different script might be impersonal, frosty, or deferential. Using nyohitsu script to the wrong person could be over-familiar or disrespectful. The extravagant letterforms and elaborate page layouts are not decorative, but integral to the meaning. The final image is of something that looks like a nyohitsu page, but it has been stripped of meaning. As Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism goes, “the medium is the message”.

5 Something that looks like f.12v-13r of Hasegawa Myōtei’s 1713 Sasareishi, but is not.

Nyohitsu resists typographic transcription because it has more to say than the limitations of typography will allow. Nevertheless, I continue to transcribe. Not only because modern literacy is typographic, but because, as McLuhan was pointing out half a century ago, we have built a world conditioned by typography – email, databases, WhatsApp, OCR, kindles, pdfs and the rest. As late nineteenth-century Japan realised, more than a medium, typography is a knowledge regime: only that which can be contained in typography counts as academic knowledge. That which that cannot be transcribed is not data. So I continue to transcribe, stripping nyohitsu of its meaning by repeating the process that led to its extinction in the first place. We are in an exciting moment when digital technologies like machine-reading and AI are allowing access to distant archives and research methods like distant reading, data-mining and corpus analysis. But at the same time, if we allow our digital future to be limited by typography, we are re-enacting what happened to nyohitsu: a new digital colonialism.

Helen Magowan

PhD Student

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

History of Material Texts Seminar, Michaelmas Term 2020

Seminar Series;

Thursday 29 October, 5 pm                                         

Drew Milne (Cambridge)

‘The Artefacts of Poetry in the Era of Digital Reproduction: Towards a Poetics of Small Press Publishing’        

Thursday 26 November, 5 pm

Joshua Calhoun (Wisconsin-Madison)

will join us to discuss his new book, The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England (etext on iDiscover).     

All seminars will be on Zoom–to register please contact Justine Provino (jpep3@cam.ac.uk)                                                                            

Paper in Medieval England

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Congratulations to Orietta da Rold, whose book Paper in Medieval England: From Pulp to Fictions has recently appeared from Cambridge University Press. The book offers the first detailed reassessment of the arrival and early use of paper in England, and explores the ways that it was used by people across medieval society, from kings to merchants, to bishops, clerks and poets.

For more on the history of paper, see the report of our 2018 conference here.

From copying in the scriptorium to coding on the computer: understanding the book as support

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Justine Provino is embarked on a PhD in the Faculty of English at Cambridge. Here she describes her unusal and challenging project.

In normal times, writing a PhD on how libraries can preserve and facilitate access to self-destructive books might seem strange enough. The duty of these ancient institutions is to care for the works that they gather on their shelves, and to pass the information they enshrine from one generation of readers to the next. What would they make of a book that has been designed not to survive?

In the time of Covid-19, my PhD research has turned into a full-scale practical test on the work of the library in framing written culture. The physical thresholds of our cultural heritage institutions have become impossible to cross, locking away all those books that were bound so as to last, but which are also bound to decay, like all organic matter. One might mischievously assert that this state of affairs is optimal for preservation: all of the books are shielded from the touch of readers, enjoying the absence of the stress that afflicts their spines every time they are opened. But being untouched, for a book, also means that it is not fulfilling its main function in our society: the transmission of content through the process of reading. The transfer of knowledge accelerates the decline of the book as a container (torn pages, distressed covers), as we know; sometimes, it can even spell the destruction of the book, as books are ‘read to death’. Books put up different degrees of resistance to their assailants—the flimsier examples might be said to have ‘built-in obsolescence’, falling apart at the first opportunity. Unbound products of the press, such as newspapers are date-stamped in the full knowledge of their own ephemerality. But few books actively seek their own ends.

So what is a self-destructive book? Why was it even made? Where is it? Can it be seen and touched? Why would one wish to preserve and access such a counter-intuitive bibliographical artefact in a library?!

A self-destructive book is just that: a book intended by its makers to self-destruct. My PhD case study, the 1992 American artists’ book, Agrippa (a book of the dead), is so far the only example of its kind. But my research keeps me on the lookout for instances that would prove this claim wrong, and I would be delighted to be contradicted as soon as this blog is posted. Agrippa was the product of a collaboration between the publisher Kevin Begos Jr, the writer William Gibson, and the artist Dennis Ashbaugh. Though many artists’ books have involved an element of destruction, from John Latham’s Skoob Towers, burning books in the 1960s, to Stephen Emmerson’s latest translation of Rilke in spores, in which a fungus grown on the book’s cover feeds from the paper and ink, the materials in these books existed before they were re-used in a process of creative destruction. By contrast, Agrippa was made to self-destruct and self-erase before it was turned into a bound object.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh, Agrippa (a book of the dead), 1992. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. b. 38/Rec. a. 25, copy wrapped in shroud and enshrined.

Inside the book, Ashbaugh’s printworks represent vintage technologies (a pistol, a Bell telephone), and these images are overprinted onto a transcription of the DNA of the fruitfly. This insect is usually associated with ‘something rotten’, and the printmaking technique itself is rooted in decay: a first layer of aquatint etching is overprinted with unfixed-toner carbon ink. This second layer necessarily offsets onto the next page, and it also moves from its support as the page is being turned by the reader, or as the reader touches the top layer of the image; over time, it disappears. Accompanying this artwork is Gibson’s literary contribution, an autobiographical poem about his family and his emergence as a writer. The poem is digitally encrypted on a Mac floppy disk encoded to self-destruct as being read. The floppy disk is inserted into a hollowed cavity which is carved into the centre of the analogue textblock of the book. It was encrypted so as to be playable only once—after a single ‘performance’ of the poem, the disk would become unreadable, echoing the physical decay of the images.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh: aquatint etching with an overprint of a pistol diagram. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. c. 98, facing title page.

Not all of the forms of self-destruction in Agrippa were ‘intended’. The composite multi-media confection is encased in a presentation fibre-glass box, the interior of which is made of cardboard covered in an as-yet-unidentified paint. These elements are very likely to offgass acidic components onto the book, thus contributing to the oxidation – and alteration both in composition and aspect – of Agrippa’s organic materials (the stiffening of its textblock, the yellowing of its cloth-covered boards). On the exterior, this box takes the shape of an early century Kodak photo-album labelled ‘Agrippa’. This makes it a simulacrum of the photo-album Gibson found in his family home, filled with his late father’s and grandfather’s photographs. This vintage artefact was the germ of his poem about the dead, and gave the collaborative artist’s book its title.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh. Fibre-glass cover imitating vintage photo-album with label ‘Agrippa’; presentation box accompanying the deluxe edition of Agrippa. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. a. 25.

Begos’s archive on Agrippa, housed at the Bodleian Library, retraces the creation of the book and the reaction of the public from 1992 to 2005. This archive is accompanied by a deluxe- and a small-edition copy of Agrippa, which materially evidence some of the many phases in the making of the self-destructive book. The deluxe edition is missing its floppy disk and has no ‘disappearing images’; the small edition is not visibly lacking any elements. Both editions have presentation boxes made of acidic materials. As a book conservator by training, these copies present me with both an ethical and practical challenge. They were made to trigger our common – but quixotic – idea of the book-object as a permanent support. Agrippa presents us with the material reality that a book is an object that necessarily evolves over time, and we have to take into account the book’s evolution in order appropriately to care for and to preserve its informational content. The most ancient form of codex and its hardware (chains, clasps) and the latest e-book software have in common the fact that they are transferable supports, generated by copying in the scriptorium or coding on the computer. They can also be erasable supports, whether they are palimpsests or data files. Agrippa’s makers remind us that we quickly become oblivious to the materiality of a text as long as it ‘does the job’, forgetting that it is vital to the communication of its content. Agrippa reveals a lot about the relationship between our idealised vision of the book and its material reality.

Begos Jr/Gibson/Ashbaugh, deluxe edition of Agrippa. Aquatint etching, without disappearing image, facing a hollowed cavity carved in the textblock that is missing its floppy disk. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rec. b. 38.

But can Agrippa be preserved? Strikingly, it preservation started the moment it was released. After Begos advertised it, highlighting its ephemerality, Gibson’s poem was hijacked via a secret recording, made during the public reading of the text from a computer screen at the time of Agrippa’s launch on December 9th 1992 (the recording is now available on YouTube). In parallel to this public intervention, Begos himself gathered and preserved Ashbaugh’s artist’s proofs and his experiments in the process of overprinting, together with information on the making of the fibre-glass presentation box, and the contract for the encryption code; these items are all in the Bodleian archive. The library is now the framework that allows this network of digital and physical data to be reconnected, allowing the researcher to glimpse the unfolding process of a one-off, entirely unrepeatable performance.

the shattering of daily life

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During the Covid lockdown, the London Review of Books has been exploring its back-catalogue, and sending out choice articles to cheer its subscribers up. Today I had my day interrupted by an article on the way that social media interrupts our day–Rebecca Solnit’s ‘In the Day of the Postman‘.

It’s a rueful meditation on the simplicity of the lives we used to lead, written by someone whose life has straddled the digital divide. As another straddler, I don’t find it all easy to make moral judgments about the before and after–life before was, as I recall, often quite boring, while life after seems to involve too many people playing Candy Crush or watching James Bond on their phones. But Solnit analyses it very well, and her proposal that we need to work to put the world back together again–to regain a local, meaningful, slow and honest relationship to our experience–resonates. Will I be deleting Facebook and Twitter? Soon, I promise, but not just yet…

thoughts on shelfies

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One of the stranger consequences of the coronavirus lockdown has been a growing fascination with the contents of the bookshelves that are suddenly visible in the backgrounds of politicians and pundits forced to Skype or Zoom or Facetime in to deliver their wisdom to the nation. Such bookshelves have long been a matter of passing interest for the way that they help to shore up the authority of the speaker, and for the occasional revelations they offer about the intellectual coordinates of a politician’s life. But now they have become unavoidable.

Yesterday we were briefly transfixed by the “shelfies” of the conservative politician Michael Gove and the Daily Mail commentator Sarah Vine, in which the eagle-eyed spotted copies of The War Path, by the Holocaust denier David Irving; Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve, which argues that intelligence is unequally distributed by race; and Ayn Rand’s right-wing novel Atlas Shrugged. Many commentators noted that owning a book doesn’t mean that you agree with its contents, while others remarked on the general lack of female writers among Gove’s heavyweights, or wondered what the response would have been had Jeremy Corbyn (repeatedly accused of antisemitism during his time as leader of the Labour party) been found to have holocaust deniers on his shelves. Last night, BBC’s Newsnight ran a feature in which they showed politicians in front of their bookshelves, and gender was again at issue: we’re sorry for the preponderance of men, Emily Maitliss told us, but that was because it’s men who tend to sit in front of bookshelves for their interviews. And a Twitter account called ‘Bookcase Credibility’, which circulates pictures of egregious shelf-parading, is trending.

All of this was of course just the usual storm in a social media teacup, which will soon blow over and leave us exactly where we were before. But it has a particular resonance for those of us who work on the history of libraries, or for people like me who just find themselves unable to take their eyes off other people’s bookshelves. My recent book, Shakespeare’s First Reader, grew out of the fits of nosiness that sweep over me when I visit a friend’s house and see their shelves, tranposed to the sixteenth century. What are all these books? Where did they come from? Have they been read? How have they shaped the life, the experience, the identity of the person I thought I knew?

Part of the fascination is, of course, not just in the individual items but also in their disposition—neatly organised or heaped-up and messy? well thumbed or pristine?—and the relationship between the books and the rest of the room, with its multiple markers of taste, wealth and interest. The material details are so telling, though often in ways that are hard to formulate: we just react to them with a shiver or a feeling of warmth. But beyond that, the sight of a bookshelf sets up an oscillation: it lets you in and screens you out; holds out the books but keeps them firmly closed; shows you ‘reading’ whilst asserting that you could never see something as intimate and secretive as reading. All of this explains why I’ll be keeping more than half an eye, with a twinge of guilt, on that twitterstorm. 

History of Material Texts Seminar, Lent Term 2020

Seminar Series;

Friday 7 February, 2-5pm
Alison Richard Building SG2 
Re-thinking the Book
A CMT 10th anniversary collaboration with the CRASSH ‘Re-‘ project, starring Juliet Fleming, Alexandra Gillespie, Deidre Lynch, Gill Partington and Adam Smyth 

Thursday 20 February, 5pm  
Board Room, Faculty of English 
Susanna Berger (University of Southern California) and Bill Sherman (Warburg Institute) in conversation

Thursday 5 March, 5pm
Board Room, Faculty of English 
Drew Milne (Cambridge), ‘The Artefacts of Poetry in the Era of Digital Reproduction: Towards a Poetics of Small Press Publishing’ 

All welcome

Souvenirs of ‘Souvenirs of Italy’

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A couple of weeks ago, the CMT and the Cambridge Bibliographical Society finally managed to organise a long-promised site visit to Audley End House and the ‘Souvenirs of Italy’ exhibition, curated by Abigail Brundin of the Department of Italian and Dunstan Roberts, Praeceptor in English at Corpus Christi College.

At the heart of their investigations was the figure of Richard Aldworth Neville, 2nd Lord Braybrooke, who went on a Grand Tour to Italy in the 1770s. He has never been part of the official narrative of the house, as it is presented to visitors, but he slowly rose to prominence as research on the library proceeded. Here he is shown holding a book in a portrait done by George Romney c. 1779.

Richard Neville had Europe and Italy in the blood; his father met his mother, Magdalena Calandrini, in Geneva when he was on his own Grand Tour in the 1740s. She died in childbirth in 1750, and her husband began to fill the pages of a massive black-edged mourning book in her memory (despite the evident depth of his sadness, he didn’t get very far through the volume).

The exhibition featured some documents from Richard’s childhood, including a cute account book that he kept at Eton, which included a foretaste of Italy in a reference to ‘Biscuits savoy and naples’. But the main focus was his Grand Tour. Before he set out, Richard drew detailed maps showing the distances between towns. This tempting example gets us from Florence to Rome, via Siena and Viterbo:

Richard kept a diary of his travels, which includes numerous sketches, including this picture of the litter that he was carried in as he descended the Alps. (He expresses some sympathy for the carriers).

As the exhibition showed, Richard’s travels are richly documented, in souvenirs from Pompeii, in letters describing the paintings he had bought, and in books. The archival gatherings in the display cases provided the context for a picture on the walls of Audley End, in which Richard and his schoolfriends are shown admiring classical statuary. This picture was done to celebrate a six-week stay in Rome, when the group of friends undertook a course in classical antiquities.

For years after their return from Italy, these old friends continued to cement their relationships by exchanging tokens of classical culture, such as this book given to Richard by the author William Young.

Although there are not many Audley End books that can be assigned with full assurance to Richard, it is likely that some of the substantial collections of Italian literature now held at the house were acquired by him.

The ‘Souvenirs of Italy’ project, which followed on from an earlier project at Belton House in Lincolnshire, was a great example of how taking country house libraries more seriously can bring their buildings and collections into a new focus. As a side-benefit of the project, a couple of Audley End books owned by the Tudor translator Thomas Hoby also came back into view. These were made the subject of a virtual exhibition at the Cambridge Digital Library that is also well worth a visit.

Our thanks to Abi, Dunstan and Peter Moore, curator of collections at Audley End, for showing us round!