Thinking with the Codex

Lab 4: Thinking with the Codex


The Archive and Special Collections Department of Northeastern’s library is a hidden gem. Located in the basement. As students hustle their way through the lobby and voices echo in the stairwells, the archive room is calm. It’s interesting to think that all of us are walking on top of history. Our primary concerns, however, seems to be how to find a charging station. I had personally never stepped foot into the archive department; it’s never been introduced in my classes and until this semester. M focus has always been future developments in the Music Industry and figuring out how to earn a sustainable wage by writing songs. Technologies of text is improving my critical thinking skills. Analysis of writing samples and artifacts is allowing me to think deeper about the connection between human desires, divisions, and developments and the mediums we invent and advance. The archive section of the Library is a new discovery for me and I’ve already returned after our lab to explore more.

For Lab 4, we entered the Special Collections room and pairs of books were spread out on the tables. Each pair had similarities and differences and it seemed that each combination had been chosen carefully. We were meant to choose one combo and analyze the two books thoroughly. I decided to go with two literal works I already knew of, Charles Dickens’ Sketches of Young Couples published in 1840 and Jacob A. Riss’ How The Other Half Lives from 1904. Dickens’ book is a comical look at the various traits of young, wealthy couples in London. The book includes sketches of what is known to be real couples walking around the city, drawn by “Phiz,” a.k.a Hablot K. Browne. Riss describes the hardship of living in tenements in New York during the 1800s in How The Other Half Lives and it was a monumental book in exposing poverty to the upper class.

Dickens vs. Riss

The physical characteristics of the books are easily notable. They’re both smaller in size, an observation that to me, concludes the books were meant to be traveled with. Dickens’ Young Couples is even smaller, more of a pocketbook to be brought out and reread multiple times, possibly for comic relief or conversation. In comparison, Riss’ work was a serious exposition of the poverty in New York tenement housing. Although a smaller book as well, compared to the Big Atlas of London we analyzed, it seems to me that How The Other Half Lives is not meant to be brought out for comic relief. It’s a reflection piece, a look at society from the perspective of the less fortunate and I imagine the book being discussed in a professional, serious context. Unlike, Young Couples, an entertaining book to get a few laughs, the information in Riss’ research wasn’t for pure entertainment, it was informative.

To continue with the discussion above, although the books have different aims and purposes, I would consider both Riss and Dickens journalists. They were observing the environment around them and reporting on what they witnessed. Both books include sketches of their surroundings. Dickens collaborated with Browne to create complimenting drawings to go with the stories of real-life couples. These images were engraved and printed using a cross-hatching technique to add shadow and detail. When How The Other Half Lives was published in 1904, photographic engraving had been introduced and the book contains a mix of drawings and photographs. The photographs of tenement tenants add a realistic connection to the words. In contrast to Dickens book, which depicted couples as cartoon characters and created a comedic atmosphere complimenting the literary pages. Also, a factor I noticed in Dicken’s book is that, similar to the Romance novels we analyzed in the first few classes, there were several advertisements for other literary works either written by Dickens or published by the printing company, E.J. Hale and Son. In the back of Riss’s work, I saw an Appendix that included statistics about the tenement problem. It shows the vasty opposite feels of the books.

In terms of typography and other details, both copies were quite modern. The type reminded me of Times New Roman and there were page numbers, often associated with mass-printing, as we talked about in class. Each paragraph had an indent for easier reading. As an unexperienced printing analyzer, I don’t believe I would have pinpointed the release year if it wasn’t already posted. They looked modern enough to my eyes that the year could range from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Traces of the pulp processing can be seen in both books, although Young Couples is bound with thread and How The Other Half Lives has taken a more modern approach, attached to the cover with glue; something we often see in books today.


The works of Dickens and Riss remind me of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. When Riss and Dickens studied people, Audubon explored wildlife, specifically birds in the US. The book, published between 1827 and 1838, contains colorful images of different species, yet no words are present. The text was released in entirely different volumes called Ornithological Biography. The images were printed using engraved copper plates and black ink, similar to Dickens and Riss. The colors were painted by hand with watercolor, creating the vibrant hues of the birds. Audubon’s work surpasses both Dickens and Riss in regards to time spent observing subjects. Audubon spent almost 12 years capturing the birds and publishing the book.

Further Analysis

All three works are alike in that the authors studied subjects and spent time creating a literary work to inform the reader. After evaluating the pages, I think that wealthier individuals were the sole target of all three books. The Birds of America was a long-term, expensive investment for a printing house, as a result, the cost of the book must have been extensive. Sketches of Young Couples seems to be a book about young wealthy couples for young, wealthy adults. I personally make the assumption that a wealthy couple would relate more to the comedic aspect and drawings of the book than a poor, young pair struggling to get by. Out of all three books, however, How The Other Half Lives seems to be the most important book to appeal to the upper-class. It’s meant to shed light on the unsanitary and brutal conditions of the tenements. Comparable to Dickens, Riss intended the book to be geared towards wealthier audiences. I could be wrong, of course, but I assume a poor reader living in a tenement apartment would not desire to read about themselves, never the less afford newly published books. Riss’ powerful work lead to a personal relationship with Theodore Roosevelt and multiple reforms regarding housing conditions. It is a perfect example to show that the printing press began an age of information where text could we massproduced for a larger audience, and in some cases, an audience with the means to change present conditions of society.