WHAT IS A BOOK?
1. A Memory of Lost Treasure.
I first discovered the shop situated on the corner of Cecil Court,
roughly opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery in the
Easter holidays of 1973. I had gone to London with a girlfriend from
the University of Sussex.
It was evidently a rare exmple - even then - of a late Georgian, intact,
shopfront; complete with its internal fittings.
It specialized in antiquities of all kinds, jumbled in an unswept,
dusty window display, and also contained in wall-cabinets which were
integral to the internal pannelling. The girl who I was with evidently
knew of its existence, and of the oddity of the place, which was evidently
well-known within a specific clique of London collectors and dealers.
(Her father was one of the senior partners of Stanley Gibbons, the
famous stamp dealers; whilst one of her uncles was in the higher echelons
of Spinks, specialist dealers in numismatics and medals. Evidently,
members of her family had for at least three generations been attempting
to do business with the proporietor of this establishment - if only
to salvage the remains of his extensive stock from the ravages of time
and neglect. However, the owner was eccentric to say the least; and
rumour had it, from her own family, as well as from fellow dealers
in Cecil Court, that the old gentleman who owned not only the stock
but also the property - freehold - was, let us say, perhaps had a longstanding
penchant for the consumption of opiates.
The window alone constituted a treasure trove of clutter. But by no
means worthless junk. There, before one’s eyes, were Egyptian,
Assyrian... artefacts. The furnishings of the dead such as amulets,
talismanic objects, small inscribed tablets, some covered in cuneiform
lettering, some in hieroglyphs. There were prehistoric weapons: knife-hafts,
spearheads, etc, some of flint; others of bronze and iron. Objects
from the Dark Ages of Europe. Strange statuettes. Bracelets. Torques.
Some in base metal. Others in silver; and a few in what seemed to be
- probably was - gold.
An abundance of riches; yet at the same time a jumble.
There were also books. Small volumes bound in vellum; others in leather.
Evidently in various stages of (in)completion; some having suffered
from the ravafes of time more than others. A few were opened to display
ornately formed initials in gold-leaf and vivid pigments made from
finely-ground precios and semi-precious minerals mixed with oil and
the gelatin of boiled bones to fix them to the prepared, smoothed skins.
All these treasures hidden beneath accumuations of dust; thin in some
areas, whilst quite thick in other parts of the window display and
the cabinets. Cobwebs were everywhere within. I still remember the
aptly surreal yet pitiful conjunction of an especially fine cobweb
which had caught nothing but dust with one of several elaborately worked
pieces of lace. Even the labels on the lace (as on all the other reliquae)
were of evident antiquity, being written in a variety of hands, probably
dating from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, quite
often with a code number indicating that the oject had been taken from
a particular drawer or shelf of a cabinet... to which it was never
to be returned.
To see this treasure trove one had to peer not only through panes of
unwashed Georgian glass, but, moreover, the grille of spiked wrought-iron
(rapidly rusting) which encased the window. There was, likewise, an
outer door of spiked wrought ironwork punctuated by three locks, plus
a couple of wrapped padlocked chains, which rendered the whole utterly
Each time I went to London I visited the shop in the hope that - just
perhaps - it might be open.
Then one day, entirely by chance, having spent the best part of a December
day in the reading room of the British Library, I could concenrate
no more on the work in progress, felt claustrophobic; and yes, also
I was enticed by the thought of the Cecil Court shop. I had already
bought my commonlaw wife a piece of jewellery for Christmas, and had
thought of treating myself to something. Having thanked the person
in the British Library who had allowed me to actually hold in my hand
and look through a medieval book of hours, as well as part of a James
Joyce notebook fragment of Finnegans Wake, Cecil Court beckoned.
was open. Or at least the padlocks were off, so I ventured in. There
was the proprietor, shabbily dressed, evidently savouring a thick
green liquid which he had just poured from a chemist’s
bottle. This was something of a different potency from Chartreuse;
and I had my suspicions as to its main ingredients: viz. an opiate
compound in an alcohol suspension.
To curry favour I began by wishing him a Merry Christmas, before asking
if I might look around, albeit briefly. To this he consented, so long
as I was quick, and knew what I was looking for. My eyes lit on a page
of illuminated text bearing a musical score. One corner was a little
worn and crumbled where the stitching had torn through the vellum as
the book had been dismantled. He asked £20 for it, informing
me that, as the label indicated, it was early 14th century; and that
the label itself dated from the late 17th century. I still had more
money in my wallet, and was about to ask the prices of several other
objects, when he politely but firmly ushered me to the door, informing
me that he had to visit his doctor and then the pharmacy before six.
Memories - utterly vivid - of the interior of that quasi-impregnable
magical shop are still with me. And, some nights, nights of restlessness
and fitful sleeping and nightmares, they assume a life of their own.
A reality, sometimes of wistful loss (loss of collections of objects
and books which had to be sold to support my own addictions); sometimes
of vivid horror.
Snapshots of both will be found later in this text.
2. The Anguish of Loss.
Books - for me - for many years (and to some extent still) were/are
equated with loss, degradation, squalour and the threat of death.
Selling books to maintain addictions, pretending that I had lost
interest in them. Lying to myself. As I write this I have to reassure
myself. I am reminded of Winnie-the-Pooh, who, in one story, is
compelled to keep checking that all his jars of honey are safe
from predators and thieves. (This in itself, innocent and charming
though it is on one level is, on another, the quasi-perfect metonymy
for the behaviour of the addict... or the bibiophile.)
Such sense of loss can at times surface in the most intense manner,
doubtless a manifestation of what Freud (and with more insight and
eloquence Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva) would refer to within
the phrase ‘the return of the repressed’.
Moreover, I have to confess, that whilst writing this, I have by
my side, close at hand, three recent acquisitions - books of course
- which I frequently feel, and occasionally peruse... just to make
sure that they are still there. That I have actually purchased them;
that I have not lost them.
The three items in question are:
1. The Ten Books of Quintus Curtius Rufus [...], 4to, London, 1652;
translated by Robert Codrington.
This is the first English translation of the works of Quintus Curtius.
2. Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, transated by
Jocelyn Godwin, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999. The first complete
translation of this important text of Renaissance Hermeticism/mysticism.
It is, moreover, printed in a specially-designed typface which imitates
that of the original, as well as containing reproductions of the original
illustations and emblematic embellishments.
3. The two volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
On my left, in a small card folder, is a manuscript leaf from a Book
of Hours, probably from Tours, France, circa 1460.
Thus, two narratives. One manuscript fragment from a larger (but still
pocket-size) work. And a work of reference.
It is with the work of reference - the dictionary - that I will commence
this journey. The traces of which will NOT be inscribed in a book,
or on loose sheets, but on the screen and discs of a computer.
the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and seach for the entry ‘Book’.
Is it significant to note that this lengthy entry is preceded by a
much shorter one which reads as follows:
Boohoo, int. and sb. 1525. A word imitative of noisy weeping and laughter.
Also as vb.
- Should I take this as an uncanny admonition as to the futility of
the quest before me? I erase all such trepidations and continue.
Book. Evidently the roots of this word are to be traced to Old Teutonic.
meaning was ‘writing tablet’;
in pl. tablets, hence book, a sense subseq extended to the sing.
[There is evidently a connexion between boc and beech. Probably bark
and fibres of this tree being used as the original writig surface in
this part of Europe.
Moreover, I find myself sidetracked in another, personal way. I am
reminded of an important essay by Jacques Derrida, entitled, in English
translation, ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, in Writing
and Difference. In this essay, Derrida discusses and rereads Freud’s
essay on the magic writing-block. To all intents and purposes this
was - and is if one can still find such things - a children’s
toy, consisting of a pointed piece of wood with which to write, and
the writing block itself, which was a cake of wax in a wooden container.
The wax cake was covered by a thick piece of greaseproof paper upon
which one wrote. And hey presto! your writing appeared. Then, between
the wax tablet and the greaseproof paper, there was a thin metal strip
in grooves top and bottom with a thumb-grip. Move the metal strip and
the paper would be released from the wax tablet, and the visible writing
would appear. (But of course, if one looked closely, one could see
the traces of the previous writing upon the wax block. Thus Derrida
postulates a triad of writing / erasure /trace.
- And many secondhand and antiquarian books contain elements of annotation,
erasure, and subsequent annotation at a later date. Often, in manuscripts,
one can detect where passages - written on vellum - have been erased,
and later modifications, alterations or additions inserted.
In such cases one can say that the book contains traces of previous
readings which have never been quite entirely expunged. Reading itself
is incremental to the book itself. And from an early date, many printed
books included margins and, indedd, interleaved blanks precisely to
record the act of reading as one of participation within the text.
Reading as an act of modification of the text.
the preceding paragraphs are in effect marginal to the quotation
or copying of the entry under ‘Book’ from
the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.]
[...] A writing; a written charter or deed. A (written) narrative,
record, list, register - 1681. 3. A collection of sheets of paper
or other substance [...] blank, written, or printed, fastened together
so as to form a material whole, esp. such a collection fastened together
at the back and protected by covers; also, a literary composition
long enough to make one volume, as dist. from a tract, pamphlet,
essay, etc. [...]
- And, as one would expect, the various nuances multiply with time.
The gap between denotation and connotations (in the plural) widens.
LANGUAGE, SPEECH, TEXT AND BOOK.
de Saussure, the founder of modrn linguistics, distinguished between
Langue and Parole. Langue (literally ‘tongue’)
was conceived as being language (usully a national language, in Saussure’s
case, French) as the hypothetical totality of all possible permutations
of words which could be said to generate a meaning. One could use the
analogy, perhaps, of a reservoir.
Parole, on the other hand, Saussure considered as a specific instance
of usage of the tongue, as in everyday speech, conversation, requests,
demands, orders, spoken etiquette etc.. Thus, from the reservoir of
language, one took as much as was needed at any specific time.
researches and writings (and his few publications within his own
lifetime) were undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Then, with the advent of positivism, logical positivism, the growth
of symbolic logic, his ideas were eclipsed, until the advent of the
movement retrospectively termed Structuralism, initially a French
intellectual phenomenon of the early 1960s.
Structuralism borrowed heavily from the science of linguistics.
Yet, nevertheless, from its outset, it met with dissenters within its
own ranks, so to speak. To simplify a great deal, the pivot of the
argument concerned the primacy acorded to speech, the spoken word.
The problem was - and still is - that speeech by its very nature is
ephemeral. It exists in time, but not in space. In order to be recorded,
some external agent or medium is necessary. The wax cylinder, the record,
tape, and latterly the cd have all captured the nuances of the spoken
word. Without which aids, such facilities as sound archives would simply
not exist. However, all such recordings (with, possibly, the exeption
of the cd) have proven to be woefully fragile and prone to corruption,
degradation and decay.
Indeed, at the time when records of the spoken word were first being
lauded as a great breakthrough in preserving the past and DISSEMINATING
utterances, James Joyce was already mercilessly taking the piss out
of such commercial claims of immortality and permanence.
In Ulysses, Joyce (in the guise of Leopold Bloom) mercilessly pokes
fun at the idea of attempting to artificially prolong the memory of
the deceased via the medium of the record or cylinder.
Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well,
the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keepit
in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on old greatgrandfather
Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeragain
amarawrf kopsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds
you of the face. [...]
or cd/cd rom, however, can only be played back with the aid of a
machine independent of the subject. The book (in a first stage of
comprehension) requires only the eyes. Or the eyes and tongue of
one person, and the ears of another, if the ‘reader-as-listener’ is
blind, as in the case of Borges, and before him, Milton.
is visible, tactile, has a specific smell (whether new or old), even
a specific sound. The pages of different books make different sounds
as onereads, turning over the pages, or flicking through them; no
two books fall off the same shelf in the same manner and with the
same sound.. [Wicked thought: Perhaps a Jane Austen novel should
fall to the accompaniment of a rustle of lace and crinoline. Rabelais’ Gargantua
and Pantagruel, on the other, to the accompaniment of a gusset-ripping
fart born of a surfeit of wine and sausages.
the acts of both writing and reading are beset with interruptions
andbreaks. And here seems an appropriate location.
AN ONIERIC INTERLUDE.
It is a dream which I have experienced many times in the past. I was
always so utterly vivid.
I was standing outside the window of a shop specializing in books and
antiquities. There was one particular volume which intrigued me, placed
alone in a small oak cabinet. Bound in calf, leather, or vellum, I
could not say which as it constantly changed.
I remember the peculiar tinkle of the old-fashioned spring-bell as
I opened the door. I had no need to talk, it seemed, and neither had
the proprietor, who was elderly and what one would term shabby-genteel
He handed me the book; more as if it were a gift, or something which
he was happy to dispose of, rather than being something which he demanded
I remember feeling the covering of the book. It was as if I was touching
my own skin: the skin of my left hand with the fingers of my right.
I noticed too that it was grained like human skin. (I later discovered
that some books were bound in human skin. Not only in the name of the
macabre excesses of the Nazis; but that such objects - as fetishes
- formed part of the culture of many so-called primitive societies;
and that examples could be seen in, for instance, the Museum of Mankind,
London, and elsewhere; but not usually in places of prominent dispay.)
Although the feel of the book was unusual, it was, within the nightare,
not initially repugnant. It was even warm: blood-heat, in fact. The
proprietor beckoned me to open the tome, which I did.
...Within, there were no pages as such. Rather, first of all, a series
of partitions made of what appeared to be gelatin, each in turn containing
a book, somewhat in the fashion of a travelling library-case of small
format editions such as were taken on the grand tour or on tedious
coach journeys before the age of rail. Then the object began to slowly
metamorphose, changing in texture, shape, and dimensions. It slowly
dawned upon me that this was siister; yet compulsively desirable at
the same time. So I leafed through. Each page I turned offered both
splendours and menacing items. Cameo rings from ancient Rome next to
severed fingers. A ruby seal next to a chicken’s giblets, still
in their anatomical pouch. Pages from an illuminted miniature book
of hours, in which the clouds and the figures moved. Then the turn
of a leaf, and behold, the inner organs of a human being: a heart beating,
lungs expanding and collapsing. I realized my fingers were becoming
sticky, and, looking down for a tissue or handkerchief with which to
dry them, I noticed that my shirt front was saturated with blood. That
in fact there were huge gaping wounds in my own body. That the book
and my body had become interwoven in the dreamwork of condensation
and displacement. ...That in fact the book in some way was itself a
life-form. Worse still, an unpleasant extension of my own body.
Unfortunately I then used to awake. I say ‘unfortunately’,
for since then I have witnessed far worse scenes in real life. These
cannot be shrugged off as a vivid nightmare. The scars never mend.
For me, therefore, books and the collecting of unusual objects and
antiquities and furniture are ways of blocking things out. ‘Ways
of Escape’, to borrow a turn of phrase from Graham Greene.
turning to the books themselves, as a ploy of deferral, I present
a brief clip from, first of all, Derek Jarman’s The Tempest;
secondly from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. It is
to be remembered that the primary factor underlying the banishment
of Prospero is that, following the death of his wife, he sought sanctuary
and solace in his library to the utter detriment of his dominion.
leaf from a tree. No doubt with time and patience, and the aid of
a BOOK I could identify the type of tree whence it came: its provenance.
This merry prank I will happily postpone, as after several nights’ insomnia
my central nervous system is jangled enough already. Note the veins
running through the leaf; reminiscent, in some perverse way, of the
venous system of the bloody book of my nightmare. The sculptor and
environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy has made garlands, hops, boxes
and even sculptures from leaves, using the lea veins and thorns instead
of thtread and needles. However, I do not think he has so far made
a BOOK from woven leaves.
[Note the veins in the leaf, which somehow metonymically calls forth
the nightmare displacements of the book of which I dreamed - nightmared.]
2. A leaf from a Book of Hours, French, perhaps from Tours, acording
to the cataloguing of Mr Phillip Pirages, whose acumen is openly acknowledged
by members of the British Library manuscript department.
These two items share, I think, various points of contact. Provisionally
1. Both are parts of larger entities. The leaf originally hung on a
tree, of which it formed an integral part. The tree in its turn is
often utilized in the manufacture of paper: the leaves of a book, perhaps.
What was probably at one time a complete Book of Hours now only survives
in fragments. Many autumnal and winter ravages have dispersed the leaves
mercilessly. Many of which undoubtedly met with ignominious ends: such
as firelighters, pie-tray linings; stuffed into crevices to prevent
draughts and so on. (See John Aubrey on the fate of mss in the 17th
2. Therefore, both leaves exist in an uneasy limbo. An alien space.
Their original function has been stripped from them, be it by the forces
of nature: the seasons; for the tree must shed its leaves in order
to survive. Or via the vicissitudes of history: the plundering of religious
houses in Europe from the late Renaissance onwards.
RESTITUTION (pace Derrida) is impossible in both cases. Preserved in
an environment different from that in which they were intended to function
- be it by man or nature - their status is temporarily secure, albeit
imposed and remote. Both leaves have been SALVAGED. (Ambiguous word:
partly connoting ‘saved’; partly ‘savaged’:
having been raped/ripped in this process of preservation and collecting.)
However... one may dismiss the above surmises/ramblings as so much
litter.- ‘A letter a litter’ to quote James Joyce from
Finnegans Wake (in a section which, ironically, yet aptly in this instance,
involves a hen scratching in a farmyard dunghill and scrabbling together
a document - previously torn up - of incriminating evidence in the
annals of Irish history).
And here the text parts company from the aforesaid leaves, already
lost in this present accumulation of leaves.
FROM LEAF AND LEAVES TO BOOKS
At the outset a caveat - a word of warning; an admission of my ignorance.
I know very little - next to nothing in fact - of non-European books.
That is to say, of their function, of their intended mode of reading;
of the social and religious systems of which they formed an integral
part. Perhaps this may in part be due to the great divide which separates
the dsciplines of art history, cutural history and intellectual history,
from those of cultural anthopology, historical anthropology and ethnography
in the British higher education system.
Please allow me to choose a few books. There will, I strongly suspect,
just from looking at my own motley collection, be a dialectic of similarity
and difference in this choice whch I have made. A personal choice:
yes, I freely admit; and perhaps one which is not always deadpan in
its juxtapositions. However, in my flat I arrange my books to suit
MY needs; definitely Not conforming to any known code of librarianship.
Having begun with a cultural fragment of the fifteenth century, why
not supplement this with another. An instance, it will, I think become
apparent, of both similarity and difference.
This book is incomplete. A fragment - like the illuminated ms leaf
- of early Renaissance literary culture. Still a religious as opposed
to a secular or vernacular work.
UPON THE GENERIC TERM ‘BOOK”.
1.MARTINUS FLACH, Sermones Thesauri novi de sanctis.
- bound with:
Sermones quadragesimales Thesauri . 1485.
One of the best-researched bst-selling novels set in the middle ages
is undoubtedly The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, who is himself
an established hitorian of medieval culture. One of the pivots of the
plot is the fact that in the medieval period - and indeed down until
the early 16th century, quite often both bound mss and printed books
could contain MORE THAN ONE TEXT - i.e. SEVERAL TEXTS between their
Books printed before 1500 are generically referred to as INCUNABULA,
an endearing - if quaint - indication of the fact that, as the Latin
derivation suggests, such books date from the time when printing was
still a babe-in-arms, in its swaddling clothes (or in its widdling
clothes; not much difference really to the washerwoman...).
Before the advent of printing - I defer attributing the invention to
one specific individual of a particular nation-state, albeit the name
of Gutenberg - thanks to McLuhan - has become synonymous with the invention
of printing in the west. I do this because it seems to add little but
confusion and nit-picking... mainly along the perforations of national
boundaries. This is the sort of positivistic and nationalistic historicism
which first established itself in universities during the 19th century.
It has more to do with jingoism and flag-waving than sensible history;
therefore drag it to the bin!
Again: Before the advent of printing, books were disseminated chiefly
in two ways. Either monastic libraries agreed to exchange copies of
manuscripts for copying in their scriptoria (basically religious copying-houses,
wherein each monk was allotted a certain fascicule or bundle of stitched
leaves to copy; once copying was completed the loaned copy and the
copied copy were then bound between wooden boards, coverered with leather,
held together on the leading edges with either leather thongs or metal
buckles according to money and expertise available). Once completed,
the originals were then returned to the houses which had loaned them.
Unfortunately there is insufficient space here to enter into the intricate
workshop or scriptorial relationships which made the praxis of copying,
and the production of books possible. A simplistic arrangement can
be roughly postulated as follows: at the bottom of the pile, the scribes
themselves. These were often monks with a limited range of literacy:
they could copy, yet quite often not understand: it was a writing exercise.
For this reason one encounters so many variant texts of authors such
as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and theological works, due to oversight,
exhaustion, irritation, boredom.
Then a second set, or hierarchy of scribes added the frst embellihments,
the ornate or HISTORIATED initial letters, words or opening sentences
of specific books or subdivisions. These were scribes allowed small
quantities of gems ground in oil and slivers of gold leaf. Above them,
the illuminators were responsible for the illustrations - full-page,
half-page or quarter-page vignettes.
The gatherings having been stitched together (each bundle or fascicule
identified with a SIGNATURE - i.e. a small, barely visible code at
the bottom of each leaf, as an indication to the binder; definitely
NOT a signature of workmanship) were thenceforth committed to the bindery,
where the separate small bundles were carefully arranged in order,
stitched again to form a firm textual core. Then wooden boards Plane,
Oak, Beech... were affixed to the spine with leather thongs, before
being themseles covered in either leather or vellum.
The boards were then TOOLED - i.e. decorated with patterns of gold
leaf, or left unadorned but simply stamped (blind-stamped) or indeed
embellished with antique Roman and Greek coins (usually gold or silver),
antique cameos or with precious and semi-precious gemstones.
These were to all intents and purposes undeniably items of ostentation
of the first order. They simultanously proclaimed the owner’s
(not the author’s, nor the scribe’s nor the binder’s)
erudition and his wealth. Moreover, they proclaimed that the owner
had the rare privileges of relative privacy and time for relaxation
in order to read - or at least peruse erratically these extremely expensive
To do so one had to have a position of power and stability: such as
the Papacy. Or such as the more successful condottiere - or mercenary
Dukes such as Federico da Montefeltre - came to possess by ruthles
force of arms.
Yet there was a growing market for such luxury items among those members
of the nobility who had had the privilege to have been educated privately
or in smal family groups by the generally impoverished Renaissance
humanist scholars of the period, such as Cristoforo Landino, and his
more gifted pupils.
There began at this time in the early Renaissance the first shoots
of what one would call a Book Trade as such, in manuscripts prior to
printed books. A whole labyrinth of Parisian streets was slowly taken
over by scribes, copyists, preparers of parchment and pigments and
binders. Moreover, the somewhat pompous yet evidently erudite and shrewd
Vespasiano da Bisticci was probably the first bookseller to write his
memoirs. The shopkeeper thought he deserved a higher social acclaim
than his fellows, and sought to prove it BY WRITING AN ACCOUNT OF HIS
DAILY AFFAIRS, indicating, nay, emphasizing that he was no mere tradesman,
but had personal contact with the leading powerful and wealthy persons
whose fortunes made the Renaissance economically possible.
Vespasiano da Bisticci does not seem to have welcomed the advent of
printing gladly. From his memoirs one athers he was very much a supporter
of the medieval guild system of craftsmen; conservative in outlook,
and most probably viewing printing as a potentially seditious force.
Yet for all that, north of the Alps in particular there were forces
at work to challenge the supremacy of Italian cultural achievements.
The vast improvements in oil painting, which entailed the novel idea
of the easy transportation of artworks, nolonger intergral to the wall
as in fresco or secco, or as part of the internal carpentry as in the
case of diptychs and triptychs on panel was part of a movement which
indicated the mobility of artist and artwork.
Of all portable artefacts, besides jewellery, dress, tableware, the
most ostentatious and innovatory was the book. The PRINTED book. There
was one drawback, however. Namely, that whereas apiece of sculpture,
antique or copied or newly-conceived undoubtedly caught the eye - as
did a fresco or panel painting, the book per se was a much less grandiose
object, even if encrusted with pearls and antique cameos.
Moreover, the act of reading in itself is socially a far more personal,
individual act than admiring works of art, remains of antiquity or
objects of craftsmanship.Whilst the latter pastimes can be enjoyed
simultaneously by a select group, the dimensions of the book almost
enforce a solitary pleasure upon the reader.
As Alberto Manguel (amongst others) has indicated, much more research
needs to be done concerning the development of SILENT READING: something
which we take for granted today, as being the norm for reading a text
of any kind (unless it form part of a public entertainment or gathering).
The oral tradition of reading aloud did not suddenly die out overnight.
There was no relatively swift, epistemological or lexical break precisely
coinciding with the advent of the vernacular manuscript, nor of the
The professional storyteller was still active in the 19th century.
Such people were quite often professionally employed in the workshops
of the earlier phases of the industrial revolution, before the din
of mechanization drowned their voices.
And even after that, the reading of pamphlets, of sensationalist penny
dreadfuls continued in taverns throughout Europe - especially, it would
seem, in concentrations of poorly-paid, ill-educated workers. In such
communities, it seems, the readings - especially from newspapers and
from political pamphlets continued well into the era of the popular
press. For instance, such encounters are recorded by Thomas Hardy,
as well as being documented by H.L. Douch in his meticulous study of
the social history of the Cornish inn from Tudor times to the early
BRIEF RETRO -DIGRESSION
The problematic historico-social status of such readings - performed
in public places, raises an issue which, albeit peripheral in many
respects to these brief notes, nonetheless must be signalled.
The problem is that of the relationship between the textual and the
oral tradition. Between the transmission via print and the transmission
via the voice.
Even in the present, the voice has continually infiltrated the text.
The presence of the voice is there in writers as diverse as Joyce,
Pound, Chandler, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. [I leave to one side
the many problems raised by the transcripts of Lacan’s Seminaire.]
Both Propp and Bakhtin were aware of the inability of the text to capture
the essence of the oral tradition which they were attempting to transcribe.
One could argue that - despite translation - Italo Calvino’s
volume of Italian folk tales somehow represents a return not simply
to the proto-oral histories attempted by the Brothers Grimm; but going
much further back... to the time of Boccaccio, and, before him, of
Apuleius and Petronius.
In fact, in The Golden Ass and in the (quasi-Burroughsian ‘routines’)
of Petronius’ Satyricon, the reader is faced with an exemplary
lesson in what Roland Barthes termed the ‘fading’ of the
voice within the narrative text. In other words, those points at which
the text could not keep up with the voice, with the polyphony of the
various tales being simultaneously interwoven.
it be possible to compose a tentative catalogue of ‘Books
of Voices’? Or is this the domain of the interactive cd-rom?
And at what point would it become an intolerable babble? This in turn
raises the problem of categorization. Tentatively put: Should one distinguish
between a textual transcript, a written sketch essentially intended
for recital, and a BOOK? The first northern Euopean books may well
have been made from bark. But one must distinguish between the bark
of the beech and the bark of the bitch, or of the dog, or of the trader
hellbent on selling you something you have no intention of buying.]
However, it is now time for me to pick up from where I left off.
Sir Thomas Browne appropriately wrote of the close affinities between
the text and textury - i.e. weaving..
In other words, he seems to imply that the more loose threads one
attempts to work into the intricacy of one’s pattern of argument,
the more the danger that one loses track of the structuration. And,
moreover, like a piece of poor knitting, pull one hanging strand
to retrace the route taken, and the whole garment unravels.
RECAPITULATION - OR JUST CAPITULATION?
By golly! May you all live in happy bibliophile times, never misplacing
a book, never lending a precious tome out to someone who fails to return
May you always find the elusive tome for which you have been seeking
at a price much lower than you were willing to pay for it!
If possible, avoid the temptation to unwrap it until you are safely
indoors. Never leave in on bus, train or plane. Never drop it. Never
spill anything on it. Always remember where you shelved it.
And should you be in two minds whether or not to purchase it, having
sought it for a long time, always buy it... unless it is priced well
over the odds.
So far I have briefly - with digressions - considered th book which
it was impossible even to look at - let alone purchase.
The book of horror which manifested its gruesome, impossible awe in
The leaf from a Book of Hours.
I will now allow myself a further introspective luxury: that of considering
those books for which I have an especial admiraton.
For a variety of reasons.
At one point in the history of book production - or rather bookbinding
- it was somewhat fashionable to bind the text within a page from another
Take for example the copy of Lucan’s Pharsalia, 1589; bound in
a page from a 13th century manuscript. Such ploys are often encountered
in books of this period. Aubrey attests to the sameploybeing used.
Whether it was to embellish the nondescript calf binding; whether to
reinforce it, or whether to protect the book (rather like the old fashioned
school exrcise of wrapping textbooks in cheap brown paper, or cheapart
paper, I am unsure. Certainly there is much more research needed in
THE 17TH CENTURY TREATISE GLEANED FROM THE READINGS OF OTHER AUTHORS:
ROBERT BURTON, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
SIR THOMAS BROWNE, Pseudodoxia Epidemica.
Samuel Buck’s Yorkshire Sketchbook.
The Bucks’ engravings of the towns and cities of England I have
already brought in.
This facsimile demonstrates their working-method, being sketches done
in situ, to be later worked up into plates in their studio.
The sketchbook of an unknown young lady/man ? Probably of c.1830.
Some of the sketches seem to have been drawn in situ as a record of
a continental jouney. These seem to be supplemented by copies of views
taken from popular journals of the late Georgian period.
LAURENCE STERNE AND THE SUBVERSION OF THE NOVEL EVEN BEFORE IT HAD
experiment demonstrating - laying bare - the utterly arbitrary nature
of the novel itself. If the novel was invention, then surely invention
and experimentation could be carried on inefinitely... until the
author tired of the exercise. Chapters, typography, arrangements
of bindings, insertion of wrong pages... are all integral to Sterne’s
subversion of the novel into a topsy-turvey world of sexual innuendo,
in which nothing is ever adequately resolved. The novel - the book
- as an arbitrary construction; mirroring the arbitrary, absurdity
of the world and of individuals themselves.
The first edition.
James Joyce, Ulysses, the first trade edition.
Also the 2-volume paperbound set published by the Odyssey Press, to
be smuggled into England.
William Burroughs: The Naked Lunch. Olympia Press.
The art book genre:
1. Richard Hamilton, Collected Words.
2. Tom Phillips, A Humument. A Book open to constant alterations,
embellishments, readings, revisions.
Phillips, Dante’s Inferno.
From the medieval illuminated text, via photolithography, cutup, etc.
And thence to Television, in collaboration with Peter Greenaway.
4. David Hockney in a playful mood of collaboration.
Revisiting the theme of the alphabet. Part typographical exercise.
Part reworking of the oldfashioned children’s primary school
Catalogue which has never been used.
Perhaps - mischievously - this reflects upon the status of manywho
expend money upon libraries today. For ostentation: not for reading.
The catalogue reflects the void of the lack of reading. The lack
of interest once the shelves have been filled.
compared with Pepys’ Library Catalogue.
The Diary which is too good to use. Helmut Newton.
Combine with Pages from the Glossies.