Spring 2017
Technologies of Text

Lab 3: Thinking with the Codex

Whether thick, thin, brittle, smooth, dog-eared, or stained, every page discloses a unique identity that has been shaped by cultural forces over time. This identity is susceptible to change across different reading communities, but the material cues provided by the page perdure and are always present in the transmission of ideas. Designers make calculated decisions regarding the size, shape, colour, and quality of the material to suggest to readers what kind of page it is and how they wish it to be treated. Although a handwritten folio of animal skin in a medieval manuscript is as much a page as the leaf of a mass-produced paperback, the characteristics of each communicate vastly different messages about their respective manufacture, circulation, and cultural value. In this way, the construction of the page can be read as evidence of its social history.

Bonnie Mak, “Architectures of the Page”

from Aldus Manutius

For this lab, I have selected a set of books from Northeastern University’s Archives and Special Collections for us to investigate. I’ve arranged the books in pairs, each designed to illuminate a particular textual contrast: either over time, between technologies, or between cultures.

You should choose one pair of books and compare 3-4 pages from the first book with 3-4 pages from the second. You are not bound (pun so very intended) to pages I discuss, and in fact I encourage you to find others. Feel free to browse, carefully, for two you find particularly interesting. And then you should look and feel and smell and listen (but probably not taste) closely! Consider returning to Special Collections to spend more time with your chosen books. Then you should choose 3-4 pages from one of the digitized books I assigned for today’s reading and compare them with the physical books you studied.

Your fieldbook report should analyze salient similarities and differences among the pages in your three chosen books. Don’t simply list comparisons—though you might use bullet points to organize them—but work to understand significances. What do these comparisons tell us about relationships among technology, media, and culture during your texts’ periods? What do these books teach us about shifting reading, writing, and publishing practices? How does each set of pages signal what a book is, who a book is for, and what a book does during its historical period? What are the logics, codes, and protocols through which a codex operates in each period? Can you trace an evolutionary path from earlier books in your set to latter ones?

I strongly encourage you to link your thoughts and observations to our course readings, which can help you understand the features and effects I want you to attend to.

A book is a machine to think with, but it need not, therefore, usurp the functions of either the bellows or the locomotive.

I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

Mark Z. Danielewski, *House of Leaves*


The pairs from which you can choose are:

  1. The “Dragon Prayer Book” (after 1461) and Ovid, P. Ovidii Nasonis Amatoria (1546)
  2. Wynkin de Worde, The History of Helyas (1901; reproduction of 1512 edition) and Guido Bentivoglio, Relationi fatte in tempo delle sue nuntiature di Fiandra e di Francia (1629)
  3. Buteo Delphinaticus, Bvteonis Delphinatici Opera Geometrica (1554) and Benjamin Franklin, Briefe von der Elektricität (1758)
  4. William Maitland and Others, The history and survey of London (1756) and Karl Baedeker, The Rhine from Rotterdam to Constance (1900)
  5. Charles Dickens, Sketches of Young Couples (1840) and Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1904)
  6. Alexander Jones, Historical Sketch of the Electric Telegraph (1852) and George W. Pierce, Principles of Wireless Telegraphy (1910)
  7. Alfred Koehn, Japanese Tray Landscapes (1937) and Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (2012)