Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation

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Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation. The Multigraph Collective. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2018.


Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation is written by numerous authors as a single book. Neither an edited volume nor a co-authored book, Interacting with Print is a new type of scholarly work that has emerged from a series of workshops and symposiums with members since 2011. It is a remarkable achievement both its ambition and execution and serves as a model for future scholarship in the arts and humanities.

With eighteen short chapters, along with beautiful pictures and illustrations, Interacting with Print examines print culture as a technology and how we interacted with it. Print culture is when print in all its forms was at the center of cultural life and included innovations in printing, reproducing images, distribution, intellectual copyright, and competition with other communications. In eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europe and North America, more people were reading and there were more to read. Central to print culture was the book which became part of national culture.

Rather than being comprehensive or serve as an introductory guide to print culture, Interacting with Print examines key theoretical approaches to print culture. The chapters are advertising, anthologies, binding, catalogs, conversations, disruptions, engraving, ephemerality, frontspieces, index, letters, manuscripts, marking, paper, proliferation, spacing, stages, and thickening. The book also has an introduction, which describes print culture; an epilogue, which discusses computational representation; and a useful and extensive bibliography.

In each of these chapters, we see the evolution of the print as a particular technology. For example, handbills were initially the common way to advertise, only later to be replaced by advertising in newspapers and books. Communities were forged around advertising, with consumers, writers, painters, illustrators, newspaper editors, book publishers, and printers themselves. And the tone of advertising evolved over time from “soft sells” to satire as societies’ tastes changed.

Another example is the development of anthologies with the canonization and organization of certain works. This entry also contains a series of beautiful pictures of the binding of anthologies, revealing that these books were artworks in and of themselves. The entry ephemerality is one that makes us look at print differently in its transient use of money, blanks, and wastepaper. But perhaps the two most interesting entries for scholars are the ones on letters and manuscripts.

Letter writing was initially an administrative practice until the eighteenth century when it became feverishly adopted by private individuals. Letters not only expressed intention and sentiment but also formed and cemented relationships. People spent hours each day writing letters, like Elizabeth Montagu’s some eight thousand letters (constituting both sides of the correspondence) which were written over a seventy-year period. Also what was written in letters and how they were written depended upon the distance between correspondents, whether they would be descriptive, interactive, or autobiographical. Letters were often kept tied together in packets and returned if requested when a relationship had soured.

After the decision Pope v. Curll (1741), an author had a right to the intellectual property of his or her letters, even if the author was not in the physical possession of them. Publishers could not print letters without the author’s consent. Still many letters were illegally published when commercial presses could benefit.

Another development in letters was the printed letter, whether in personal correspondence or to the public (e.g., newspaper editorials, public meetings). But perhaps the most famous of example of letter writing is Marlow’s exchange in letters with Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novel shows both the power and failure of letters to forge connections: the circulation of the letters across the empire, the indeterminacy of intentions of the authors, and the multiple mis-readings of the text.

Although letters are mostly done electronically today, print still survives predominantly in the manuscript in spite constant predictions of its obsolescence. When manuscripts were written in both pen and print, there was the common question about its authenticity: which manuscript relied on the other one? Later, when print manuscripts were predominant, they still accommodated handwriting, especially when certain books were given as gifts, in an attempt to personalize a mass-produced commodity. Another example of the hybrid between print and handwriting was the “fair copy” which was a pre-print of a manuscript before it was published and circulated among various parties for review.

The private circulation of manuscripts, particularly those which were handwritten or a hybrid between print and handwriting, was common women of education, given the high barriers to print publishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, many of these manuscripts were written with a social rather than public audience in mind (e.g., Jane Austen’s juvenile writings). But eventually the private practice of manuscript circulation was unsustainable as public demand for printed works grew.

What we discover in manuscripts, letters, and other technologies in print culture is that they have evolved over time in terms of content, production, distribution, and reception. This in turn warns us that what we may think is normal now in our culture is only a passing phase. Interacting with Print is a marvelous work that reveals what print culture was and what we can learn from it. Accessible yet scholarly, this book is a delight to read and a testament that print culture still remains.

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).