The loss of the “unique” book

Although I cannot deny that portions of this weeks’ reading were dry, overall I found the topic and reading to be very interesting and enjoyable (especially after I figured out what punches and matrices were and therefore understood what I was reading).  That being said, I did find it difficult to decide on a topic for this blog, as there was plenty that I could comment on, but little I could discuss at length.  For this reason, my blog is perhaps more exploratory and less text-based than originally intended, based on something I observed (or deduced) from Greetham’s historical introduction rather than something he explicitly discussed, namely a gradual loss of the book’s “uniqueness.”

Handwritten books are inherently unique, as despite any effort on the scribe’s part for uniformity in spacing or letter-writing, no two books could be exactly alike, just as the spelling of words varied depending on spacing needs.  Each book would have its own particular appearance, no matter the faithfulness of the copy.  This seems to be true even after the introduction of printing, as there is still the possibility of error and the need to space.  Furthermore, as Greetham explains, the purchaser of the manuscript would often personalize the book’s binding to his/her own specifications and desires, again suggesting a “unique” book despite its mass production.  I would further argue that “uniqueness” continued beyond the mass production of book binding through personal inscriptions added when books were given as gifts.  As scribes influenced handwritten copies, printers adjusted early printed copies, and owners commissioned personalized bindings, inscriptions add a personal touch to the book beyond the author’s words that lends itself to the material book’s uniqueness.  However, just as the degree of personalization of the book has gradually become less noticeable, it seems today that very little is done to personalize editions and make them unique.  As students, we may take notes in them, but this somehow seems different although I cannot coherently explain why (perhaps because our notes are on the text as opposed to an attempt to personal the material book itself).  And even if student notes are accepted as a type of personalization, this is still a small minority of unique books.  As this gradual loss of “unique” books cannot be attributed solely to mass production (as my argument and Greetham’s history would indicate that personalization continues beyond mass production), I cannot help but attribute it to a cultural change.  My question, however, is whether this change has occurred specifically in our view of books (that they culturally are given less value) or if it is a general cultural transition to impersonalization (perhaps evident in our culture’s increased use of less personal communication like texting and instant-messaging).  Trithemius suggests that the scribe’s additions to the book through handwritten copies (even copies of printed books) adds value to the book, writing, “His labor will render mediocre books better, worthless ones more valuable, and perishable ones more lasting” (474).  Yet this idea that such personalization to the material book adds value would suggest that we value contemporary books less because they are not unique, a seeming reversal of the cause-and-effect I perceive . . .

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One thought on “The loss of the “unique” book

  1. With respect to personalizing books, I behave differently with academic books and pleasure reading. I always write my name, date and location into the academic books (inside the cover; front right) as I start to read them (not when I buy them). I seldom do this with pleasure reading. I know that the impulse to inscribe my books has several roots: I own various books with similar inscriptions going back to the 19th century, though most of them belonged to my parents or grandparents and don’t go back that far. It’s fun to know that my grandmother was reading this book, in this place, at this time, so I guess I feel that I’m paying it forward (I know; big ego!). But it’s also been interesting for me to look at a book that I haven’t read in a while and be able to conjure up something about the time when I first read it.

    So, why not the pleasure reading? I’m not sure. Most of those books that are inscribed have gift inscriptions. Do I take the books less seriously if they are for “pleasure” rather than “academics”? Perhaps it’s that I’m not as committed to the pleasure reading. I evaluate them on a different scale entirely, and I don’t know whether or not I’ll like them until I’m done. With academic works, even if I don’t like it, it’s still important to me that I’ve read them. You made me think about my habits. Maybe I’ll start making more of a commitment to my non-academic reading.

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