The other day, I (as usual) became distracted while doing research and somehow ended up on a digital archive of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I love medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. They are beautiful, so precisely, so lovingly rendered, drawn by hand primarily on sheets of parchment made of goat, sheep or calf skin. Carefully planned and laid out before the addition of text and illustrations, they often contain spirals of floral motifs, historiated initials, highly wrought flourishes and other ornamental elements, rendered with pigments like crimson and carmine, woad and weld, verdigris, indigo and ultramarine, some “illuminated,” touched here and there with bits of gold leaf like flashes of insight. They are delightful.
They are also sometimes completely wacky. My favorite marginalia include false prophets (often with frogs, varying in verisimilitude, shooting out of their mouths), monkeys playing the bagpipes, disembodied body parts and knights doing battle with snails. There are blue vegetables with human faces on them, mermaids breastfeeding and vengeful rabbits. I have even seen a small doggy creature drawn (by a presumably bored scribe) as if entering into and emerging from an illustrated “rip” in the page.
These manuscripts speak to a world in which the written word was not as easily reproducible as it is today — a world in which fewer people were literate and even fewer able to afford or have access to books. Much has changed since then, yet the materiality of the book still remains a constant source of fascination, offering an almost laboratory-like space for experimentation and creativity.
For example, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience was published in 1794 and interweaves the text of its poems with rich, colorful illustrations, all hand-engraved and printed by Blake himself. In fact, Blake had invented his own printing technique to produce the book, and due to variations in the plates’ coloring, no two copies he made of the Songs were the same.
The drawings did not simply reiterate what the text had already stated but expressed their own distinct narratives and ideas. In more recent years, works such as Anne Carson’s Nox have followed in pushing the limits of the book as material object. Containing photographs, drawings, dictionary definitions and anecdotes, Nox is actually a long sheet of paper accordion-folded into a gray box and serves less as a work of poetry or narrative than as an epitaph for Carson’s late brother.
In the early-to-mid 20th century, sci-fi lovers began making and circulating fanzines. “Zines,” as they were called, took off with the punk subculture of the ‘70s and 80s and the “riot grrrl” movement of the ‘90s. Inexpensive, subversive, self-published and typically produced in small batches, zines embodied a DIY ethic and a grungy, collage-y aesthetic that challenged the authority of word over image.
As a child, I used to have two books about flower fairies that were absolutely precious to me. These were made to look like Victorian scrapbooks. They had miniature envelopes that you could open to find minute letters or fairy “wings” (bits of fine iridescent mesh), field guides, dictionaries and maps you could flip through, recipes and tickets and a kind of paper apparatus with small drawings inside and a pair of magnifying lenses through which you could look at the drawings. One of the books had a magnificent pop-up tableau at the end: an enchanted midnight garden which, when you flipped to it, played a strain of the sort of sparkly music one would typically associate with fairies.
“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the praiseworthy method,” says Walter Benjamin. Inspired by these books, I began to make my own, cutting up sheets of paper and binding them with pieces of ribbon or string. I would gift these to my parents, who would indeed give me praise, though whether I was worthy remains an open question.
Recently, the materiality of the book has largely disappeared for me, since, with classes moving online, it has become more expedient to resort to e-books and digital libraries. The best thing that can be said about them is that they are usually available immediately. One does not have to wait for them to arrive in the mail or trudge to the store. Moreover, as someone who hates to write in, highlight or otherwise deface physical books, I have no such qualms regarding e-books, given the diminished sense of ownership one has over them, as well as their apparent transiency and lack of value.
For it cannot be said that they are beautiful items, nor that they offer such simple pleasures as flipping pages and hearing them rustle, physically feeling how close one is to the end of the book and how much progress one has made or experiencing the fresh smell of ink and paper if the book is new or the musty but comforting smell of age and history if the book is old. More importantly, physical books carry with them memories of their scenes of reading. When I used to volunteer at a lab over the summer in high school, I would read Jane Eyre while sitting by a window waiting for my dad to pick me up, so that, even now, I still associate the scene of Rochester reading Jane’s fortune with a certain sense of adolescence and August sunlight.
But it isn’t true that digital texts don’t offer their own pleasures. Jon Bois’s 17776, or What Football Will Look Like in the Future, begins innocuously as a sports article on SB Nation but, as you scroll, erupts into something far stranger: a hypertext narrative in which GIFS, videos, pictures, and text of various colors and sizes emerge as you continue scrolling, offering a more immersive, participatory reading experience. The narrative itself takes place in the year 17776 and concerns three sentient space probes living in a future where human beings are immortal and spend their time playing football. And this is not just any old football — the games have been going on for millennia, allow hundreds of players and are played on fields thousands of miles long.
It remains to be seen whether such forms of storytelling will catch on and eventually turn the physical, printed book into what the medieval codex is today. But, if Bois is right and we can expect football to exist in 17776, perhaps we may yet hope that the humble book will, too, though its rules might be unrecognizable.
Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.