Toward an Ecology of the Book

“Reading Habitats in Renaissance England”1

Joshua Calhoun, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Creative Commons LicenseThis work was first presented at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. It is part of a larger, forthcoming book project and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

First, a confession. [SLIDE 2] I am not a forensic expert. And I don’t even play one on TV. That part of the program is later.
 I’m here because, while researching my current project about ecology, poetry, and papermaking I became acutely aware of how many insights are awaiting the right collaborators working together inside the archives. My brief opening remarks are meant to suggest how such collaborations can yield wide-ranging insights, and also why the particular kinds of insights that my copanelists will discuss are timely and essential. [SLIDE 3]

As literary scholars and book historians and cultural historians we have, by and large, taken for granted the ecologies that allow, disallow, or alter the storage and transmission of ideas. Made of recycled clothes, slaughtered animals, and felled trees, books in Renaissance England are filled with visible traces of ecological matter. [SLIDE 4] In “The Book,” a short poem published in 1655, Henry Vaughan observes that his Bible’s paper is made from flax plants and that its binding is made from the wood of a tree covered with the skin of a calf. What happens to a Bible, Vaughan wonders, on the day of resurrection, when all things are restored to their perfect forms? Does the Bible go back to being a cow? Vaughan’s poem raises questions about the earthly matter from which media are made, about how nonhuman objects in bookish format persist, interrupt, and alter the words they are made to record. Embedded in the pages of Renaissance books are legible ecologies that record the negotiations of people and things, of humanists and nonhumans.

I am intrigued by Vaughan’s poetic insights, but I am also intrigued by moments when the things on which words were affixed became or were treated as invisible. For instance, early in this research, I became fascinated with animal sizing, [SLIDE 5] a gelatin coating applied to handmade paper so that it can accept water-based ink without sponging it up and reducing the writing to blots. If you’re still not quite sure what I mean by animal sizing right now, you’re in good company here, and that’s part of my point. Sizing is so ubiquitous in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books we examine in archival libraries that we don’t notice that there are lots of animals stuck to the plant-based pages. But sized paper was more labor-intensive to produce and more expensive, and printing ink was oil- not water-based, so why not print on unsized paper? “Because you can’t” was the most popular answer I received as I asked chemists and conservators, but through the network of the archive, I eventually learned the opposite was true: you can print on unsized paper, and it’s easier. But books printed on unsized paper were much less likely to survive. And, of even greater interest to me, books printed on unsized paper were unable to accept manuscript marginalia. We tend to ask “does this printed book have manuscript annotations,” but a prior, book ecology-based question would be “is this printed book annotatable?” If we wish to understand the reading habits of Renaissance readers, we need to better understand their reading habitats.

Exploring the ecology of the book certainly deepens our understanding of the history of the book and the history of reading practices, but it also sheds light on lines we’ve overlooked. [SLIDE 6] Understanding that poorly sized paper was called sinking paper, for instance, helps to reveal a subtle pun in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. But I’d also argue that readings that are attentive to the poetic possibilities of ecology allow for a heightened sense of possibility, for what Jane Gallop calls “a more literary criticism” that attends, in the words of Jonathan Walker, not only to “the play of language and its material embodiment” but also to “the texture of its insights.”2

Regardless of what we emphasize individually when we write about Renaissance literature, the great majority of us access literature not only through editions, but also through archives, where we hold and read and handle the slowly decaying bodies of a biome we call Renaissance England. An ecology of the book can give rhetorical weight to the matter from which books are made and can begin to account for the crucial negotiations between humans and the world of things in the acts of creating and preserving a material record of ideas. We accept, as literary scholars, that words on matter never exactly replicate ideas. We accept and even enjoy the incongruities, but often limit our explanations of them to the agency of humans, human language, human media. Using biological metaphors like “medial ecologies” we tend to overlook the actual ecologies that make media possible.3

[SLIDE 7] I’m reminded of Michel Serres’ remarkable close-reading of Goya’s painting “Duel with Cudgels”:

A pair of enemies brandishing sticks is fighting in the midst of a patch of quicksand . . .The fight’s outcome is in doubt simply because there are two combatants, and once one of them wins, there will be no more uncertainty. But we can identify a third position, outside their squabble: the marsh into which the struggle is sinking.4

This third condition, this “world of things themselves” as Serres calls them, can allow a different sort of conversation to emerge. Book materials are provisional, seasonal, and geographically specific. To accept nature, or natural resources, or the world of things, or the outside world, or ecology—here I don’t mean to conflate all these terms used by other scholars and thinkers, but to acknowledge that there’s more to unpack in the language of ecology than time allows this morning—to accept nature as a given in an anthropocentric story of media is to miss out on a vibrant history of the ecological negotiations and technological contrivances used to store and transmit human ideas. And while book ecology has its starting point in a set of questions about the materials from which books were made then, it is equally interested in how historical plants and animals in the forms of untimely, polytemporal books are used and preserved and forensically tested now.

Although the work I’ve described explores the ecological materials that made the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries possible, the questions that book ecology asks of handmade paper might be just as productively asked of cuneiform tablets or the newest iPad. [SLIDE 8] They are ecopoetic questions that have the capacity to reveal the hindsight biases that give an air of inevitability to certain kinds of media at certain times and in certain places. They might be distilled into three questions which guide this study: 1) How has scarcity of nonhuman matter altered human communication? 2) How has the corruptibility of nonhuman matter used to make texts altered human discourse? 3) How have humans creatively imagined or reimagined the textual possibilities available to them in a given ecosystem? [SLIDE 9] Scarcity, Corruptibility, Possibility. These three ecopoetic negotiations are, I think, central to the conversation about the ecology of the book.

In Goya’s painting, the environment is clearly visible, but the duelers choose to focus their energies elsewhere. We are, of course, these duelers. We could call ecological disinterest in source materials an embarrassing oversight. We could also call it a singularly exciting future direction in our field.


1 I’m grateful to Zachary Lesser for suggesting the idea of proposing the “Shakespearean Forensics” panel for SAA. My copanelists were Matthew Collins, Peter Stallybrass, Christina Warinner, and Michael Witmore, and I’m grateful to them for conversations and email exchanges that culminated in this session. For more information about the exciting work each of these scholars is doing, click here.

2Jane Gallop, Anecdotal Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 2; Walker, Jonathan. “Reading Materiality: The Literary Critical Treatment of Physical Texts.” Renaissance Drama 41, no. 1 (2013): 199-232.

3 N. Katherine Hayles’s Writing Machines (and its complementary “Lexical Linkmap” website) coins the term “Medial Ecology” as a figurative “phrase [which] suggests that the relationships between different media are as diverse and complex as those between different organisms coexisting within the same ecotome” (5).

4 Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 1-2. The painting is Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Duelo a garrotazos, 1821- 23.