Looking at Books Beyond Words: “The Year of the Book” Begins with Lectures September 19 and 20 Print
News/Features - Literature
Wednesday, 12 September 2007 02:33

John Buchtel When you pick up a book or magazine, your conscious mind is almost certainly looking at the cover and the text inside.

But what else are you processing? You might not realize it, but the book is sending signals about itself with cover art, typography, the thickness and texture of the pages, binding, printing mistakes, wear and tear, and heft.

A dog-eared mass-market paperback might be telling you with these physical clues that it's not to be taken seriously, or that it's disposable. A pristine but aged hardcover, on the other hand, might be saying that it's valuable, and should only be handled with care.

"The physical features of books can be read in a way almost as meaningfully as the words themselves can be read," said John A. Buchtel, curator of rare books at Johns Hopkins University's Sheridan Libraries, in a recent phone interview. Buchtel will be delivering three talks in the Quad Cities next week to kick off "From Parchment to Pixels: The Year of the Book," a joint endeavor of St. Ambrose University and Augustana College.

Typography, paper quality, and legibility "affect us in subtle ways, but they do affect us," Buchtel said.

This isn't merely an academic exercise. Your reaction to the physical object can change how you interact with it. You might go into that worn paperback with lower expectations than the same book in hardcover form. "With a hardcover, there's a little more authority behind it," Buchtel said. "The publisher has invested more money. The reader has paid more to get the book."

The cover art of the Harry Potter books is different in Great Britain and the United States, for instance, and those treatments could help create different reader experiences with the text.

It's hardly a radical idea. In a broader context, it's something we all know from our exposure to advertising and packaging: "Every container shapes its contents differently," Buchtel said. "Every bottle affects the message that it contains."

A name-brand cereal in a box with familiar characters gives off a different vibe than virtually the same cereal sold as a store brand in a bag. Beer in a bottle tastes different from the same beer in a can. An expensive car feels better than a cheaper one, even if it doesn't perform as well.

To return to books, take Charles Dickens' Bleak House. If you've read it, it was probably in a single volume. But it was published in 20 monthly installments in 1852 and '53, and that knowledge can help a reader understand some peculiarities of rhythm and plotting. "So every month you got the next [three or] four chapters, the next installment," Buchtel said. "This has a powerful effect on the flow of the narrative, because Dickens would write in a little twist at the end of every fourth chapter. You get a series of rising and falling actions that a novel which is written for a one-volume format won't have."

The serial publication had other characteristics that modern readers won't experience. For one thing, it included advertisements and illustrations, which for its original readers would have provided clues about the intended audience, and for a modern audience would provide a cultural context in which to put the narrative. And the monthly price of one shilling made it accessible to most people: "It's like buying your literature on the installment plan," Buchtel said.

Another example that Buchtel cites is the Bible - the subject of his morning lecture on August 20 at Augustana College. "We'll cover a couple thousand years of the history of book production, format, editorial decisions, and the physical appearance and use of the Bible, looking at it not from the lens of theology, not through the lens of textual criticism, but more specifically of the book that we actually hold in our hands," Buchtel said.

The Bible is a particularly good example because of the myriad forms it has taken through the entire history of publishing, from the King James version to study Bibles to versions aimed at contemporary teens to graphic-novel editions. "The Bible has gone through different manifestations across two millennia, and every different approach to presenting the text makes a difference to how we receive it and interpret it and understand it," Buchtel said.

He compared the Geneva and King James versions of the Bible to illustrate the point. The Geneva Bible (which debuted in 1560) is heavily annotated and typically used Roman typefaces. The King James Bible (which was first published in 1611) was not annotated and used heavier, black-letter fonts. "The King James Bible ... actually comes across with a real sort of weight of authority, that this is an official publication of the state church, the Church of England," Buchtel said. "The Geneva Bible tends to come across much more as a Bible published by scholars but for ordinary people. And it's a Bible that really strongly emphasizes the reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, that ordinary persons ought to be able to interpret scripture for themselves."

Buchtel's point is that there are messages delivered by these books independent of their text. And even if electronic versions of books someday replace the printed page, the study of books won't abate.

"We tend to take them for granted as objects," Buchtel said of books. "Even electronic texts have at the base a physical form - a series of ones and zeros, of offs and ons - that ... shapes our understanding and interpretation of the words that come through."


John A. Buchtel will present "How to Read a Book Without Reading the Text: Books as Physical Artifacts," at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 19, at St. Ambrose University's Rogalski Center. He will give the lecture "From Gutenberg to Graphic Novels: Bibles & the History of the Book" at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 20, in Augustana College's Olin Auditorium.


Buchtel will also talk on "Book Collecting Basics" at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 20, at the Augustana College Art Museum. That will be followed by "Old Books Roadshow," at which Buchtel will evaluate books that people bring.

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