Program launches Yale into book history

AmandaBuckingham_BeineckeMiddleAges-60
Photo by Amanda Buckingham.

On a Wednesday afternoon in November, the audience at a lecture in the Beinecke received instructions they likely did not expect from an English professor: The guest speaker told them not to read the Dante excerpt before them. He asked them to look at it instead.

The scholar, Randall McLeod, a professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto, had come to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to give a lecture on the relationship between text and type. McLeod — the inventor of the McLeod Portable Collator, a device that allows scholars to compare copies of printed books by merging two texts into a single perceived image — was the second of six guest lecturers this year in the “Yale Program in the History of the Book” at the Beinecke.

The three founders — English professor David Kastan, Curator of the Early Modern and Osborn Collections at the Beinecke Kathryn James and Aaron Pratt GRD ’16 — established the program last year in an effort to make Yale a leading player in the developing field of book history, a discipline focused on the study of the book as a material object.

“Book history is not only the history of books: It’s the expansive rubric that covers various platforms in which writing gets recorded, distributed and otherwise engaged,” Kastan said, adding that the field of book history has only really emerged within the last 15 years.

The program, which is co-sponsored by the Beinecke and Yale’s Department of English, features three events a semester in which a guest speaker both gives a public lecture and conducts a seminar of 20 to 30 graduate students, professors and other academics. As of this year, the program also features a symposium in which book history scholars discuss topics in the field and present their own work.

The rarity and breadth of its collection render the Beinecke one of the best libraries in North America at which to do book history research; however, Yale, has historically not been considered a top research university in the field. The “Yale Program in the History of the Book” has begun to rectify that shortcoming — but the success of the program will hinge on its ability to generate participation across traditional academic disciplines.

ESTABLISHING BOOK HISTORY AT YALE

Before the creation of the “Yale Program in the History of the Book,” the field of book history had a relatively small presence here at Yale. In 2006, James started a book history lecture series at the Beinecke that featured two lectures on work in book history each semester. Years later, in the fall of 2011, Pratt inherited a graduate student working group in the field that two students had begun earlier that year.

The following January, Pratt approached James and Kastan — who had started a small book history program during his tenure at Columbia University — with the idea of consolidating the working group and the lecture series into one official book history program for the University.

In the program’s first year, its founders sought first to brand the lecture series specifically as a Yale undertaking and decided to present English Department Chair Michael Warner as its first speaker, Pratt said. Later, Pratt added, he and the other founders sought to establish the program’s credentials by “bringing out the big guns:” guests included professor Robert Darnton of Harvard, professor Roger Chartier of the University of Pennsylvania and Elizabeth Eisenstein, who, Kastan said, wrote the foundational text on why print matters.

“We were trying to rescue the field from the charge of antiquarianism for its own sake and provide a lens through which it becomes extraordinary,” Kastan said.

He added that the distinguished speakers, many of whom had done research at the Beinecke at some point during their academic careers, were enthusiastic about being a part of this extension of the library’s traditional workings.

“The paycheck from the Beinecke is often enough,” Pratt added.

Each speaker’s visit includes both a lecture open to the public and a seminar for a smaller group of scholars. The lecture and seminar do not necessarily focus on the same topic, Pratt explained. The lectures are meant to be the most accessible component of the program. The seminars, by contrast, involve discussion of one of the visiting scholar’s works-in-progress, which is distributed to the seminar participants in advance, Kastan said. He added that the artifacts that the text addresses are often on display on the seminar table.

“We wanted a forum where we can have a real conversation of peers talking to peers,” Pratt said, explaining that a teacher-student relationship is often implicit in graduate student seminars with visiting scholars. He said that having faculty in the room who are also experts on the visitor’s area of study makes for a different kind of event.

This year was the first in which the program also included a symposium, which Kastan said allows for “a hands-on approach” to the field. This year’s symposium, called “Structures of Meaning in the History of the Book,” took place over a weekend in September. The symposium, Kastan said, focused on exploring both what book history is and what it can do through lectures, seminars and activities, such as examining hardware used in studying digital book history and inspecting old book bindings. Books used to be bound with discarded pages of other books, and in bindings, one can find pages of texts that have otherwise been lost, Kastan explained.

This year the program worked to explore beyond the Western literary tradition to make visible the broad scope of book history, Kastan said. For instance, the program’s next speaker, Peter Kornicki, is a scholar from Cambridge University who specializes in Japanese print culture. In the future, Pratt said the program will likely feature specialists on texts in science or medicine.

AN EMERGING FIELD

The Beinecke houses an outstanding collection of rare manuscripts and other significant artifacts in book history, including one of the world’s most extensive Shakespeare collections and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, James said.

“There’s nothing better at any other North American university,” Kastan said, adding that the Beinecke was one of the primary reasons why he left Columbia University for Yale in fall 2008.

James said that archival researchers always have come to the library to work through its vast archives and always will. However, she said, the Beinecke’s purpose has undergone a radical shift in the last 15 years with the boom of the Internet. As texts have become more readily available online and in a variety of digital forms, James said an increasing number of scholars have become interested in what she called “copy-specific material:” annotations, misprints, and other peculiarities that “make printed books unique in their individual forms.”

However, despite the wealth of the Beinecke’s resources and the increase in use of the library for study of the material book, Yale has not stood out as a leading research university in the book history field, Pratt said.

Pratt explained that the University of Pennsylvania is often considered the best university in the field as the home of the program on the History of Material Texts, established by professor Peter Stallybrass. Stallybrass has been conducting workshops on the History of Material Texts at UPenn for the last 21 years, and he introduced a “History of the Book” seminar to the program in 1993. In addition to organizing a number of projects related to the field, Stallybrass also co-edits a Material Texts series for the UPenn Press with a number of other academics from institutions including Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

“Yale was famous for [literary] theory — I’m not sure they were aware of the texts they were using,” Stallybrass said, adding that, “Yale wasn’t a place I would think of [for book history] until David [Kastan] got there.”

Stallybrass attributed some of his program’s success to its being called a program in material text rather than in book history.

“We recognize the book as one among many textual forms,” Stallybrass said. “By calling it a program in material text, you’re not excluding modern technologies — or even materials like scrolls or Babylonian tablets.”

Before “The Yale Program in the History of the Book,” Yale did not provide an adequate venue for scholars interested in the field to come together and discuss their findings, Pratt explained, adding that its founders hope the program will encourage academic collaboration.

James, Kastan and Pratt all said they consider the program to have been successful thus far. However, all noted a difficulty in inspiring interest in other scholars beyond those in a narrow field of study.

BOOKS ACROSS BOUNDARIES

When Margaret Coons ’14 visited Beinecke’s Shakespeare collection this semester as part of Kastan’s “Shakespeare: Histories and Tragedies” class, she described her visit as a “sort of a religious experience.” In the last few years, the Beinecke has tried to make its collections more readily accessible to undergraduates like Coons, James said. This fall, for example, all professors teaching “English 125: Major English Poets” took their sections to visit relevant collections in the Beinecke, including early Chaucer manuscripts and copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets dating back many centuries.

English professor Catherine Nicholson, who is leading one of this semester’s English 125 sections, explained that many of Shakespeare’s sonnets claim that the poet’s work will memorialize him forever.

“Only when you see the form of these old books do you see how preposterous it was for him to make that claim — how much chance was involved that these poems survived,” Nicholson said, referring to a copy of Shakespeare’s second sonnet scribbled into a palm-sized notebook.

Though the English Department is the official sponsor of Yale’s book history program, the field of book history by no means lies exclusively within the domain of English language and literature: rather, it applies to every field with a written intellectual record, Kastan said.

“We think about how the medium matters, not to the exclusion of content, but in terms of how it affects the content,” he said.

Kastan explained that though many academic fields encompass work that also falls within the realm of book history, the program has struggled to attract interest across traditional disciplines. Even within the humanities most scholars identify their work with a specific time period or cultural tradition, and few consider themselves book historians, he said. However, he added that those who are interested only in the historical or narrative content of a text miss the point both of book history and of their own scholarship.

“Ideas don’t exist apart from the material platforms on which they’re presented to us,” he said.

Kastan said scholars have an obligation to the work that is being done in subjects that do not share the language, genre, cultural tradition or time period of their own area of expertise. He explained that departmental structures within a university do not reflect natural divisions of academic study but are only an inheritance from early modern German research universities, adding that the program aims to undo this disciplinary heritage by highlighting the universal significance of material text.

At UPenn, for instance, the program on the History of Material Texts has drawn participants from a wide range of disciplines, including students and faculty from the college and professional schools, as well as librarians, rare book dealers, and museum curators in Europe and Asia, according to Stallybrass.

According to Pratt, the notion that all academics want to support interdisciplinary work is often just a fantasy. He and Kastan said they may look for another department to co-sponsor the program with the English Department to increase the sense of interdisciplinary — or as Kastan prefers to call it, “counter-disciplinary” — collaboration.

Kastan said that even those working within the Western intellectual tradition fail to recognize the paramount significance of book history. Our concept of the Western canon, he explained, is that authors within the tradition are in conversation with each other, but he added that scholars need to stop to consider how that conversation took place — and the field of book history serves exactly this purpose.

“The assumption is that Dante is reading Virgil, but without the material form of Dante’s work, it’s impossible to know how,” Kastan said. “Book history is about materializing the trajectories of intellectual histories you think you know. When you look, you start to see more clearly what that engagement is, and that it’s more complicated than you think.”

The next lecture in the program will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

Comments