What is a book? Peter Stallybrass lecture at CSB

Vet. A1 e.123
Stab-stitching shown on an early 17th-century pamphlet containing the “39 Articles” of the Anglican doctrine.

As the field of book history expands to include written and printed matter of all kinds, Peter Stallybrass (University of Pennsylvania) asked us to consider our terms of reference. “There is a huge range of material lost when you broaden the category of books, and I want to make it more narrow.” Taking up the thread of a story where many accounts of early books leave off, Prof. Stallybrass’s lecture to the Centre for the Study of the Book on 1 April 2010 moved away from the press, focusing instead on the “job printing” undertaken by printers in order to ensure their business would survive. Stallybrass joked that this category might be called “What is not a book,” but nonetheless showed the extent to which “books form a small portion of printed matter, yet are the chief survivors of what is printed.” The real money in printing, and more importantly the majority of printed texts, was ephemeral: indulgences, state proclamations, and short pamphlets such as tracts, almanacks, and plays. At the root of this disparity between the books that survive and the overwhelming number of other printed texts that printers subsisted on, is whether the sheets were bound or not.

“Printers print sheets,” Stallybrass reminded us; books are made outside the printing houses, when binders or owners collect the sheets into a binding. Their variety of purpose often results in a variety of appearance. For example, the working papers in any household or business needed to be stored for easy reference. The “files” used were filaments: strings to hold these papers together, as can be seen in the portrait of a merchant by Jan Gossaert, c.1530. The portrait also illustrates another stage of storage: papers in loose, unbound quires used for record-keeping that could be easily enlarged. A finished calfskin binding is less permissive to the demands of ever-expanding quantities of records, so limp vellum was the ideal binding choice for such expanding collections.

How, then, did early modern readers end up with books on their shelves? Stallybrass asks us to revise our idea that early-modern booksellers sold unbound sheets, just as they came off the press. Only the very wealthy could afford, or would want, to pay for sheets of a book to be sent for a bespoke binding. Modern conditions distort our perspective because these fine bindings, sheltered within large and well-funded private collections, are now over-represented in libraries.

The average customer would have bought a book in a workaday cheap binding. Preparing pamphlets for sale was even easier. Stab-stitching of pamphlets could be done by a member of the bookseller’s household. Later, the owner of a number of loose pamphlets – miscellaneous plays by Shakespeare, for instance – might take these to a binder to achieve greater tidiness on his bookshelves. Examination of bound volumes of pamphlets reveals the stab-stitching holes, sometimes carefully repaired. Paradoxically, the efforts that owners and libraries have made to preserve the books for us today have covered such traces of their original forms, and the hierarchies of printed matter they reveal — not every “book” was always a “book”.

This subject will be further explored in “The Gathered text” on 2-3 September 2010, at the Bodleian Library. See link for details.