Thinking with the Codex

For this lab assignment, I decided to analyze, compare, and contrast the following three books: Ben Franklin’s Briefe von der Elektrizitat, Buteonis Delphinatia Opera Geometrica, and The Gutenberg Bible. In investigating these books in greater detail, I hope to attain a better understanding of the relationship between written media and their contemporary cultures.

Published in 1758, Briefe von der Elektrizitat is, as the name implies, a German translation of Ben Franklin’s notes on electricity. While analyzing the book during our lab, I thought it intriguing that, while in most aspects it appeared more “advanced” than the other two, certain other features appeared to take a step back. Most notably, the way the pages were numbered. In Briefe von der Elektrizitat, the pages followed an unintuitive numbering system, seemingly resetting after each chapter. In stark contrast, Buteonis Delphinatia Opera Geometrica, a geometry textbook first published two centuries earlier, uses page numbers consistent throughout the book. And yet, in other respects, the translation of Franklin’s writings arguably remains superior. The organization of the pages features a modern, easy-to-read layout, with regular margins, neat organization, paragraph breaks, and so on, which Buteonis Delphinaticus so often lacks. As such, the reasoning behind the poor page numbering system is quite puzzling, especially considering that printing in it’s modern form can be said to have been born in Germany, meaning that it cannot be passed off as a simple oversight due to general inexperience with printing.

Another thing regarding Franklin’s writings that caught my eye was with the fonts used. Most of the book is written in a Gothic script that I thought was somewhat frustrating to try and decipher. However, on page 5, there is a small passage where English is written in the thin, legible font we’re so used to today. It can thus be concluded that the heavy font used elsewhere throughout the book is a result of cultural/societal influence, and reflects upon the most common appearance of writing in Germany at the time.

Buteo Delphinaticus also contains other qualities that I found interesting. Rather than follow a rigid format, the book takes a fair amount of liberties in its presentation, featuring many more woodblock illustrations than in Franklin’s notes and The Gutenberg Bible combined, and structuring the type quite differently at times. Page 41, for instance, has the words form an upside-down pyramid for no particular reason, despite the fact that the bottom half of the page was completely blank, and no images were on the page either. I considered that this may have been a form of visual messaging, like what Christopher Woods has to say about early writing systems, or from our trip to the MFA, but truthfully, I did not feel that that was an appropriate connection.

Finally, The Gutenberg Bible stands out from my other two selections in its ability to speak about the time of its inception, with its unusual aesthetics and formatting. The Bible was, as the name implies, the first great book to be printed with movable metal type after the creation of Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press, and is evident in the gorgeous Gothic script imposed on the pages. Truthfully, every page looks fairly similar, and there do not appear to be any written page numbers, so I elected to look at the Bible more generally rather than focus specifically on 2 or 3 pages. The Bible’s pages take the form of double columns of heavy Gothic type, often bordered by beautiful art pieces. This can be seen as representative of the very beginnings of mechanical printing, with it’s somewhat unusual style. I did think it somewhat odd that this Bible did not have numbered pages, considering that the majority of people only ever read small parts of the Bible at a time, and thus this work would be best suited to having page numbers.