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EN120 in the Quayle: Introduction


The Hand Press

Here is a model of what a printing press from the 15-18th centuries would have looked like. These were large machines that were typically operated by two people at a time to print on side of a sheet of parchment or vellum at a time. Go to the page titled "The Hand Press" to learn more!

Image taken from and linked to Wikipedia.

Literature and History of the Book

The purpose of bringing this class for a session in the Quayle Bible Collection was to provide (1) provide physical context for some of the time periods the students were reading from, (2) give them a chance to understand the labor that went into creating the stories we've been reading for centuries, and (3) provide a new way of thinking about books as not just the stories written on them, but the physical objects that they are. All of this was done in conjunction with the themes of the class: influence of religious texts, home, travel, and exile. 

The influence of religious texts is quintessential to the history of books and the history of printing in the Western world. The first book printed in the West was the Christian bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1454/55. It's important to note that printed was invented with Chinese characters in China roughly 400 years before Gutenberg brought this invention to Germany, but Gutenberg is surely credited with introducing movable type to Europe and everywhere Europeans colonized.

Muslim texts fueled book production in the Middle East and also shaped the way books were made in Mesopotamia. In the Iberian Peninsula, which stayed consistently behind the rest of Europe when it came to book production, their printing was kept alive through the Jewish texts printed in Spain and Portugal. Presses that were established in any of the European colonial endeavors were usually done so with the intention of printing conversion works. 

The production of books reflect the time, resources, and people that exist at the time of their production. Current trends we can think about are the glossy texture of textbook pages, the cartoon characters on the covers of romance novels, and the standardization of board books for children books. When books were first created, the materials they were written on were based off of what was available. Vellum, papyrus, and clay are examples of materials used to write on that simply reflect what was available in their geographical location. Paper was invented in China around 1100, but didn't make it to western Europe for another couple centuries.

The production of books has continued to change over time as society and its needs have changed. At the beginning of printing, bindings did not include any identifiable information on them. No titles or authors or publishers like we do now. Because of this, when original works started being printed they came with very long-winded titles that functioned as the blurbs we see in books today. Sometimes booksellers would put title pages into the windows of their stores as a way of advertising them. The idea was that you could flip to the first page of text and immediately know what you were getting into. 

Some books from the 15-18th centuries have titled written in ink on the spines, or on the fore-edge (where the pages face out). These were usually written on by the owners of the books, not the producers. After the invention of the machine press, binding was mechanized and done more quickly which then allowed it to be done more quickly, and then people started to get more creative. Titles got shorter (in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the title being a single name became very popular) and started to be added to bindings so that people could know what a book was without opening it. 

Once lending libraries became popular, it was no longer economically efficient to produce books in just one volume. For the sake of allowing more than one person to check out a book at a time, and without having to buy multiple copies of a book, novels were produced in two or three volumes (also known as triple-deckers!) so that multiple people could read the same book at the same time. This eventually fell out of practice as literacy and book production continued to increase.

Today, rare book or special collections libraries hold books from as early as ~2000 BCE to as late as this year. Books can be the traditional codex like we think about them, but they can also take on a multitude of forms, all influenced by the people and the world around them. Books both carry and represent the stories within them.

SP24 Class Description

Welcome to Introduction to Literature! While some of you might feel excited about taking this course, others of you might feel you are venturing into unfamiliar (and perhaps even uncomfortable) territory. I see my job as twofold: helping those of you who love literature to delve more deeply into its pages, and helping those of you who find it confusing or boring to gain skill in and appreciation for reading. The course also intentionally includes texts from a variety of time periods and genres (including poetry, short stories, and plays, as well as a novel, a satire and a graphic novel) to allow you to experience some of the wide-ranging riches that literature has to offer.

As we embark on this journey with literature, we will break our study into three thematic units. First, we will explore the concept of Travel, journeying with characters as they explore the world around them through their own physical, intellectual, and emotional journeys. Next, we will investigate the concept of Exile, joining with characters who feel disassociated from their physical homes, and then moving into more abstract and figurative exiles, as characters disconnect from their bodies, their families, and their communities. We will conclude the semester by thinking about Home, exploring what it means to find or return to a home, especially when characters have changed through their process of reaching it. My hope is that these themes will resonate with you as college students, as you are also journeying, changing, and finding your own “home.” Engaging with this literature hopefully will help you gain a broader and more thoughtful perspective on your own experiences.

Throughout our study, we will demystify literature. I hope to give you tools to read it well and permission to interrogate it freely. Think about this course—and your participation in its thoughtful, engaging, and rigorous classroom environment—as an exciting chance to deepen or perhaps even begin again in your relationship with reading!