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Finding the Reader in the Book

November 4, 2013

Most readers focus primarily on the text of a book. Although the physical traits of the book affect their experience (paperback or hardcover, smooth paper or rough, large-print or small, etc.), this usually occurs in the background of the reader’s awareness. However, as a researcher, examining the physical traits of a book can reveal a great deal about not only the conditions of its material production, but about its use and readership.

To take a very basic example, the size of a book influences when and where it is likely to be read. Could it be slipped into a pocket for reading on a train? Or would it require a substantial table or lectern? Compare the relative sizes of the Postilla (left) and Novenas (right) below. Which one would be suitable for private worship, and which one is more likely to have been studied in a library or read aloud to a congregation?

Postilla... (left) [uncataloged] and volume containing 22 prayer books bound together (right) [BX2170.N7 N68]

Postilla… (left) [uncataloged] and volume containing 22 prayer books bound together (right) [BX2170.N7 N68]

The typography and layout of a book may indicate whether it is being marketed to children or adults, men or women, the everyman or the very wealthy. Is as much content being crammed into a tiny space as possible? Or does the work have wide margins and decorative elements?

Similarly, a book’s binding can indicate wealth and availability of raw materials on the part of the publisher, but it also usually indicates something about the intended market for a book. Think about an airport paperback of the current best seller in comparison to limited edition hardcover of classic literature. Or compare the thin paper wrappers of the pamphlet on the left to the red leather binding on the right.

Ripe Cherries...(18--) [uncataloged] (left) and El Romancero Nacional (1885) [PQ7297 .P8R7 1885] (right)

Ripe Cherries…(18–) [uncataloged] (left) and El Romancero Nacional (1885) [PQ7297 .P8R7 1885] (right)

Some special books provide even more information about readers. Association copies and annotated texts preserve traces of actual readers – specific individuals who actually read (or at least interacted with) a particular physical copy of a book.

An association copy is one that “once belonged to, or was annotated by, the author; which once belonged to someone connected with the author or someone of interest in his own right; or…someone peculiarly associated with its contents.” [1] In other words, to truly qualify as an association copy, the book’s owner must have some significant and interesting connection to its production or content. Ownership is often indicated through book plates or other evidence, as in the case of the volume below, which contains the editor’s own book plate.

Glorias de Querétaro (1803) by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora; Joseph María Zelaa é Hidalgo.[F1391.Q4 Z3 1803]

Glorias de Querétaro (1803) by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora; Joseph María Zelaa é Hidalgo.[F1391.Q4 Z3 1803]

 

A presentation copy is a special type of association copy that was given to the recipient as a gift by the author.[2] These are differentiated from inscribed copies, which are signed/inscribed by the author to someone, but are not necessarily spontaneous gifts (think of a modern-day book signing event). Presentation copies provide insight into authors’ professional and social relationships. The book below is inscribed by Tejana poet Rosemary Catacalos to San Antonio publisher Bryce Milligan.

As Long As It Takes (1984) by Rosemary Catacalos [PS3553.A817 A8 1984]

As Long As It Takes (1984) by Rosemary Catacalos [PS3553.A817 A8 1984]

Association copies (whether or not they are presentation copies) may also be annotated – that is, the reader has made handwritten notes in the text. Sometimes annotations record an aesthetic or emotional reaction to the text. For example, in his copy of Lettres à un Ami Allemand (1945) by Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov made a caustic annotation at the end of the text that loosely translates as “It’s droll, in that rather French way of giving a flavour of raspberries to the blandest of platitudes”.[3] Other times, annotations comment upon the informational content of the text, or seek to add to it. An example of this is the copy of The Fall of the Alamo : A Reminiscence of the Revolution of Texas (1860) by Reuben Marmaduke Potter, in which Potter made extensive handwritten additions to his personal copy, correcting and amplifying his original account.

It is possible (and common) for a book to be annotated without being an association copy. People who are not famous or well-known also record their thoughts in page margins. Even when the annotator is not a person of historical significance, or their identity cannot be discovered at all, annotations still reveal a great deal about the reception of a work. Analysis of handwriting, vocabulary, and ink can sometimes suggest some context for the annotations – Is there one writer or several? Are the annotations the thoughts of a contemporary of the author? Or someone reading a text two centuries later?

Postilla. Das ist Auslegung der Evangelien von den fürnemsten Festen durchs gantze Jahr gestellet durch Andream Celichium Spandouiensem, Mecklenburgischen Superintendenten. Güstrow; Augustin Ferber, Stephan Hüllmann, 1582, 1583. [uncataloged]

Postilla. Das ist Auslegung der Evangelien von den fürnemsten Festen durchs gantze Jahr gestellet durch Andream Celichium Spandouiensem, Mecklenburgischen Superintendenten. Güstrow; Augustin Ferber, Stephan Hüllmann, 1582, 1583. [uncataloged]

The physical characteristics of books and the traces that former owners and readers leave behind can provide important clues for both the study of book production and publication and the study of readers and reading. So the next time you pick up a book, old or new, broaden your view beyond the text and see what you can learn.


[1] Carter, John and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006): 27.

[2] Carter, John and Nicholas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006): 173.

[3] Harrington, Peter. Bookseller’s Description.

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