Lab 7: Deciphering Physical Books

Books to Read and Books to Show

In letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen scoffs at women who spend their time indulging in “enormous great stupid thick” quartos. She would much rather spend her time reading an intelligible octavo which is for woman of much more class and intelligence. No, she would never be caught dead reading a silly quarto in a breakfast parlour! When you take a step back and look at what Austen has such strong opinions about, it’s paper folding. How many pages of text a printer chose to print on a single sheet, then fold and cut into order. So much passion, Jane! It’s just paper!

As we learned in lab, it’s more than just paper folding. Laying sheets on a press so they would print in the correct orientation was tough work and very permanent. If it was done incorrectly, every copy of two or four or eight separate pages of text would have to be re-printed all over again. Folios were simplest. 4 pages of text on a single piece of paper front and back, folded once. Quartos were slightly more difficult, with 8 full pages of text on a piece of paper front and back, and an octavo was even more difficult yet, with 16 pages of text printed on a single piece of paper! Of course printers only worked with one side of a page at a time, but it was still difficult and imperative that all pages ended up in the correct order and orientation.

In the “Bibliography” section of our lab, we explored what bibliographers look for to identify and classify formats of books, whether it was a folio, quarto, octavo, etc. One key element are the watermarks - depending on where the watermarks appear on the page, researchers can often times tell exactly how many times the full page was folded and cut (whether the water mark was in the top right corner or the inner-center close to the binding). Another key element bibliographers look for are the directions of the paper lines - are the lighter, transparent lines running vertically or horizontally. This can also often times key bibliographers into the way a page was folded. A third key element are page signatures, which were markings (lettering and/or numbering) for the printer, so he could orient the pages of text correctly on the press. Obviously, these are found in some of the earliest printed books, before page numbers were a thing.

Like Austen, Price addresses where “books” or… reading material are found today. She talks about magazines on coffee tables, brochures in waiting rooms, and textbooks and almanacs with more information than anyone could ever sit down and read. Austen speaks to the same shift - books as things turning away from something you sit down with and divert all of your attention. We talked about this in class. How many times have we walked into someone’s house or office and admired their impressive bookshelf? While the owner may have very well read all those books, it is probably still correct to assume that the books are also there for that “wow” reaction s/he just received for their impressive collection. Books have become just that - things to collect. Or things to gift, or things to display. The point is, they are no longer just things to read. Austen might scoff at the claim, but true it is.

We’re All In This Together

This morning, I wanted to listen to one thing and one thing only on my way to class - Disney Channel Original Movie soundtracks from 2004-2009. Yes, this was the High School Musical, Camp Rock, Hannah Montana era and the best part of my childhood. So I was thinking about memories and the best times of our lives and High School Musical when I read this week’s lab and my contemporary textual artifact hit me like a truck - YEARBOOKS. Yes, yearbooks. Specifically high school yearbooks because those are what I’m familiar with. The ideas started flying and the similarities to the lab and to the readings and to what we talked about in class converged into this lab that basically wrote itself because I had so much to say. Where to begin…

Let’s look at section 2 of the lab, where we analyzed several different editions of the exact same book - a travel guide. The changes could be tracked from one edition to the next, with the names of places changing with the times, and maps of areas collecting more details as explorers and travelers learned more. All high school yearbooks are stamped with an edition, which marks either how many yearbooks have been printed, but more often than not, the number of the graduating class in the school’s history (like if you’re in the 58th graduating class, your yearbook is the 58th edition). School archives, or dean’s offices, or admission atriums often have the yearbooks from the earliest edition lined up and displayed in pristine condition. Meant for that purpose exactly, to be displayed! Not read. As if saying, “look how long we’ve been around. Look how many classes we’ve matriculated. Look how far we’ve come.” It’s honorable and speaks to the status of the institution. At both of my schools, all students received a yearbook at the end of the year, not just the seniors. So I have yearbooks from kindergarten to senior year, all displayed in order on a shelf. I haven’t opened most of those books in years. But I have them, and I keep them. Section 3 of the lab looked at traveling book samples. They had different covers, bindings, font types, styles, and colors. Yearbooks are no different. Senior year, we voted on a cover for our edition. We each got to design and submit a page, with its own pictures, fonts, quotes, and styles. There were so many options, much like the traveling books. The variation among yearbook editions relates to the emerging styles of the times. Printing was becoming more intricate and advanced, leading to more choices and options. Every year, yearbook committees pump out entirely new, original editions, highlighting something different, the matriculating class and the successes of the institution.

Price would argue that yearbooks fall into a new, modern category of contemporary literature, similar to but also different from the breakfast parlour quartos that Austen references. Yearbooks are filled with pictures. This speaks to its format, especially in contrast to Austen’s octavo or novels in general. Smiling faces of happy students are accompanied by captions. People take yearbook pictures and senior photos. Sports pages are filled with action shots and and chorus pages feature singers mid-song. Elaborate costumes dance across the theatre page and seniors posing for their superlatives are always a hit. We’re not talking about novels here. Far from it. This is a “new” type of media, different from books before it. Here we have a text, printed and distributed for members of the community. A clear example of a book, and a contextual temporary artifact as well.