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About book history

Book history is the study of the many forms in which human knowledge has been produced and consumed. Despite its name, book history’s methods extend to sociology, literary criticism, archaeology, and library and information science, and its remit extends beyond books, to newspapers, and manuscripts, and sound recording, and by some definitions everything from tattoos to Twitter. Book-historical tools helped define the digital humanities because they place the media revolutions of our own lifetime within a longer comparative context. And book-historical debates inform every text-based discipline – meaning most of the humanities and some of the social sciences – because they help scholars think about the objects through which we know the world, and about the genealogy of the practices through which we ourselves read, criticize, categorize and transmit them.

Courses: past, present, future 


Marcy Schwartz: 16.940.659: Theories of Reading, Practices in Writing in Latin America (Fall 2020; graduate) 

This seminar will explore the critical imbrication of writing and reading, theories and practices, that intersect with social and political movements in Latin American culture since the early 20th century. The course readings span a number of genres (fiction, poetry, memoir, testimonio, crónica) and include writers who produce work in more than one genre as well as works that defy genre. We will examine the writing process (including delving into archived manuscripts and drafts) alongside the history of reading practices in Latin America. Along with literary and theoretical readings, the course will include film screenings and ephemeral documents. This course will offer a number of case studies, projects and assignments with relevance for the Public Humanities.

*The seminar will be taught in English or Spanish, depending on the students enrolled. Most readings are available in translation; if they are not, alternative relevant readings will be assigned for those who do not read in Spanish.


Leah Price: 359:460: Topics in Media Theory: Cunneiform to Twitter (Spring 2020; undergraduate)

What is a book? How do you make one? Who has the power to decide how printed matter is stored, sold, lent, and pulped – and how have those decisions evolved over the past three centuries? This seminar will explore the history and future of reading through four activities:

1. Readings: a long and gripping 18th-century novel, Pamela, narrated by a newly literate servant corresponding with and about a more powerful master; an early-20th-century play, Pygmalion, that grapples with the effects of new audio-recording technologies on dueling voices of different regions, social classes, and genders; and selected shorter 21st-century essays and stories.

2. Writing exercises: a weekly notebook; a class blog; analytical assignments in close reading; creative writing assignments in pastiche and parody.

3. Group exercises in bookmaking. Over the course of the semester, we will make paper; print a page; design a zine; and record an audiobook. No technical or artistic background is required, only an open mind.

4. Field trips: to a library, a printing press, a makerspace, a warehouse, and a theater.

Meets [WCr] requirement.


Leah Price: 350:508 – Methods in History of Books & Reading (Fall 2019; graduate) 

This seminar will introduce students to methods and debates in the history of the book and of reading. Issues will include material bibliography; competing models of authorship, printing, and reading; changing practices in the production, circulation and use of the printed word

Learning goals:

  • Broaden your repertoire of methods for interpreting texts and analyzing material culture
  • Identify areas of interest for dissertation research, and situate those interests within theoretical and historiographical debates
  • Develop the ability to break a research project into stages, to identify tools needed to pursue each, and to plan the most efficient way to acquire them.
  • Familiarize yourself with library resources on campus and beyond
  • Practice constructing arguments and marshaling primary & secondary texts to support your claims
  • Gain practice in presenting your research to scholars in other time/place fields


Tom Fulton: 350:508 – Book History and the Early Modern Text (Spring 2019; graduate)

The History of the Book encompasses many approaches and interests, including manuscript study, print history, textual materialism, the status of the author, and the history of reading. This course will draw on each of these approaches, but the main focus of inquiry will be the effect of these approaches on the problems of literary interpretation. Toward this end, the course will not only undertake a survey of the major theoretical work in the field, but it will also provide hands-on engagement through a series of case studies that provide models and points of entry for scholarly inquiry. Working chronologically from medieval manuscript culture and the inception of print in England through the Restoration, these include case studies of texts such as The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, John Donne’s satires and poems, Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, Milton’s manuscripts, Katherine Philips’ poetry, and Gabriel Harvey’s marginalia. The course will be divided into a series of thematic sections, including manuscript versus print culture, what people read and how (including library history, margins and marginalia, commonplace books and habits of note-taking), and how the institutional control of publishing shaped meaning and authorship.

While the course is primarily interested in the effects of book history and textual materialism on the interpretation of texts, it also hopes to provide practical training in bibliography, archival research, and manuscript study. There will be shorter assignments and two conference-length papers. Non-specialists are welcome.