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The Experience of Reading: The Impact of the Book on the Meaning of the Text

The Experience of Reading: The Impact of the Book on the Meaning of the Text

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Published by jacquelinekate
A paper written for a course on Descriptive Bibliography at the School of Information Studies at McGill University. Considers the impact of the book, as a physical object, on the meaning for the text for the reader.
A paper written for a course on Descriptive Bibliography at the School of Information Studies at McGill University. Considers the impact of the book, as a physical object, on the meaning for the text for the reader.

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Published by: jacquelinekate on Oct 01, 2009
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01/15/2013

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1. Introduction.
“The failure to consider the extent to which the physical medium of the written wordcontributes to its meaning – how its outward aspects inform the way a text isapproached and read – perpetuates a largely abstract, often unhistorical…conception of… literature and its transmission.” (Gamble, 42)
The relation between a book as a physical object and the text it contains may bediscussed in terms of the reader’s attitude toward books. Willa Silverman recounts onecritic’s disdain for an elaborately, sumptuously bound volume of the poetry of Robert deMontesquiou, the “poet, aesthete and dandy
extraordinaire
” (316) of 
 fin-de-siècle
France, published within the poet’s lifetime and bound to his specifications. In the critic’sopinion, in light of that edition’s luxurious physical trappings, “la question fut trèssérieusement posée de savoir si M. de Montesquiou était un poète ou un amateur de poésie et si la vie mondaine se pouvait concilier avec le culte des Neuf Muses…” (Remyde Gourmont, quoted in Silverman, 327). Anne Fadiman, in the personal essay “Never Do That to a Book”, distinguishes between courtly and carnal lovers of books. To acourtly lover, she says, “a book’s physical self was sacrosanct… its form inseparablefrom its content…”, whereas to carnal lovers of books such as herself, “a book’s
words
were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread and ink that contained them werea mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatismdictated” (“Never Do That to a Book,” 38).It might be argued that the carnal lover’s attitude toward the book – that it is amere vessel – is the more rational one, and that the text of a book is all that shouldinterest a serious-minded person. But it is not clear that this is true or even possible. It isobserved by many who have studied the history of the book that books have lost a power and authority that they used to possess in the time of manuscripts. The book as an object,
 
Jacqueline BarlowGLIS 6443 March 2008
these historians contend, was at one time expected to influence the meaning of its text,and was in fact designed to do so. This paper will explore the influence of form oncontent – whether it exists, whether it is desirable, and some possible causes of changingattitudes toward this question. From this point forward, “book” can be understood torefer to a physical object, made of paper, cloth, cardboard, vellum, parchment, or whathave you. (It could also be taken to refer to electronic means of storing text.) “Text”refers to what is printed in the book.
1
In addition, there will be some distinction drawn between the physical experience of reading a book – the experience of the senses – andthe intellectual experience, which (in theory) does not derive from sense data but is purely mental. Since most of the literature on this topic – and there is not anoverwhelming amount – focuses on the historical switch from manuscripts to printed books, this paper will also discuss primarily these two formats. However, it is hoped thatthe themes which are drawn from this discussion may be applied to other formats too,including e-books as well as more ancient formats than the medieval manuscript.
2. Book and Text.
Before discussing their more conceptual relationship, it will be useful to describethe relationship between texts and books in a more practical sense. It is well known thatone text can be repeated in an indeterminate number of individual books, and that thiswas made easier with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Less
1
One facet of the reading experience that is not easily classified is the possible existence of marginalia in a book, alongside a text – that is, notes that have been made in the margins of a book after its publication, asa commentary by the reader. Which part of a volume does this belong to? It is not part of the original textthat was intended by the publisher; nor is it part of the original makeup of the book. This may hinge onwhether the marginalia were made by the reader or not – if they were products of an earlier reader, wouldthey be perceived as part of the book’s physical constructs? Or would they be seen as helpful additions tothe text? Marginalia seem to be a borderline case and so will not be discussed in depth in this paper.
2
 
Jacqueline BarlowGLIS 6443 March 2008
well-known now, perhaps, is that one book might have held more than one text. NicolasBarker describes how books were re-used in the medieval period:
Even if the text, the surface, was deemed worthless, the physicalsubstance was rarely destroyed. The text might be scraped off and anew text written on the leaves, creating a palimpsest where the oldertext might survive, if in ghostly form. The leaves might be cut up,pasted together and used as binding boards, invisible under the coverfor a new book but still extant…” (15).
The relation of text to book therefore is a “many-to-many” relationship: while a text may,as long as it exists, be contained in a number of books, so may a book, in its lifetime,contain different texts at different times.The practice of re-using books in the medieval period was usually, according toBarker, a result of scarcity of materials. In the present day the materials of book-makingare relatively easy to come by, but at a time when this was not the case it would have been important not to waste them, and in fact to deploy them in a way that was fitting tothe text at hand. Adams and Barker note that the conception of a book as a mere tool for the transmission of texts is recent, and the result of “mechanical proliferation.” As a“vehicle of knowledge or inspiration” (8), a book’s format said something about the textand also the reader: “A large book might indicate the power it exercised over those whohandled it; a small book indicated the power of its owner over the book” (8). This is nota practice that ended with the manuscript. As an example, Adams and Barker mentionthe progression of editions of the classic
The Pilgrim’s Progress
, which graduallyincreased in quality and durability, reflecting the progression of the consideration of thetext itself from “popular tract” to classic of literature (9).While this discussion shows that a book may influence the reader’s perception of the text, the ways in which this influence might happen have not so far been considered3

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