Beyond Blake

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The other day I took students to see prized items at the E.J. Pratt Library.  As others have noted on this blog, students really seem to love Blake.  Luckily at Toronto we have an impressive Blake collection.  Because the students were so excited about Blake in class and seemed eager to write about him in their papers, I had expected that they would be most excited about seeing items such as electrotype plates of Songs of Innocence and Experience and copy M of “A Song of Liberty.”  The seminar took a pleasant but unexpected turn when one student, admiring the third edition of Darwin’s The Botanic Garden containing Blake’s engraving “The Fertilization of Egypt,” said that the paper seemed “cool.”  This prompted a series of questions about papermaking and printing in general.  The students did not know much about book production beyond Blake’s unique illuminated printing process.  This is perhaps not surprising, since Blake’s methods are so integral to understanding his texts.  Plus, sources such as The William Blake Archive give students easy access to Blake’s works, revealing them to be much more than printed words in the pages of their modern editions.  Though Blake is exceptional and deserves our and students’ attention, I do wonder if it might be worth spending some time in our classes discussing how, as one student put it, “normal books were made.”

While there is a danger, as Crystal Lake voiced in an earlier post, of overwhelming students with information that takes valuable time away from primary texts themselves, I still think students of Romanticism would benefit from knowing more about how those primary texts were made.  I’m admittedly biased when it comes to such issues.  In addition to being a Teaching Assistant for the English Department, I am a Teaching Assistant for the undergraduate Book and Media Studies Program where I lecture about the hand-press period.  While I wasn’t surprised to find that the students in my Material Bibliography and Print Culture course are fascinated by the history of printing, I was impressed to find how much interest in book production my literature students expressed.  Once we covered the production of paper, they wanted to know how Blake’s illuminated printing differed from the examples of his commercial work I showed them (including his engravings of gallstones in James Earle’s Practical Observations on the Operation of the Stone).  They also wanted to know about the differences between copperplate engraving and the steel-plate engravings found in literary annuals.  In the context of these other “normal” books, Blake’s methods became even more exciting.  Moreover, providing students with an overview of Romantic-era book production brought home some of the ideas discussed in class, such as the fact that most books were expensive and that different social and economic classes bought and read different literature.

I am interested to know if others teach undergraduates about the material production of texts in addition to their socio-political contexts.  And, if so, how is this information introduced in the classroom?  I have come across an impressive number of YouTube videos about printing.  Many are poorly made, yet there are a few interesting ones that have helped book history undergraduates I’ve taught see printing in action.  (One decent short video I’ve come across includes superfluous puppets.)  I’d be interested if anyone else has similar videos or other tools that they either use in lectures or post on course websites for students to view on their own time.

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Lindsey, I agree about the


I agree about the difference a trip like this to the rare books room can make for students! In grad school, Jeff Masten's seminar on early modern print culture, "Reading Materials," was tremendously intellectually exciting for me--and part of that was learning to look at the material forms texts took. We inspected 17th-century quartos and folios; we practiced folding paper to make our own quartos; we learned about printing methods and manuscript circulation. This was really fun, and it raised all sorts of new questions for me about the history of authorship, books and reading, and I've found discussing the material production of texts to be a terrific classroom strategy--and the more hands-on this learning, the better. One fellow teacher told me when she teaches the epistolary novel she discusses, and demonstrates, letter-writing eighteenth-century style (crossing the letter, seals, etc). In grad school, I also, like you, had the luxury of ready access to a library with real treasures. Where I teach now, we've got magnificent collections nearby (the Folger, the Library of Congress) but not on campus, so I've been looking for alternatives, mostly digital. I'll be curious to hear as well about resources others have used.

This gets to something I've been thinking about lately, especially after reading Meredith McGill and Andrew Parker's recent PMLA essay on "The Future of the Literary Past"--basically, the difference, from the point of view of pedagogy (or from the perspective of sparking student curiosity), between a trip to the rare books room and working with digitized images of books, say on ECCO. Ideally you'd have both, but if you can't, or even when you do have both, how to manage and think about the difference?

Eric, I think you’re right

I think you’re right in pointing out that the role of digital texts is important when considering the role of rare books in the classroom. I do think that there is a difference between showing students physical books and using digitized images of books. To me a major distinction is demonstration versus student use. My aim in taking students to see rare books was demonstrative. Having the physical texts before them raised questions—especially about paper, binding, and format—that I don’t think would have arisen from digital versions of those texts. Once students are introduced to the importance of the physical aspects of materials, then moving on to digital resources seems like a good next step.

But I’m obviously spoiled by Toronto’s resources. While it would be a shame not to utilize them in undergraduate courses, I have been thinking about the likely possibility that in the future I will be teaching at an institution with different strengths and resources. In a comment to my earlier post, “Rare Books in the Classroom,” Katherine Harris talks about how she brings her own rare materials to class. This is also something I’ve done, but I also think that we cannot be responsible for collecting rare books for our courses. Digital resources answer some of these problems of availability, and they can fill gaps in library collections. They also help us deal with the issue of scale and student use. One cannot expect every student in a lecture course to go read a single 1798 copy of Lyrical Ballads that might be held in a library, but we can ask our students to go to ECCO. I think giving students page images is at least going in the right direction and suggests that the poems and works they are reading in their modern editions had previous lives in previous contexts.

The relationships between modern anthologies, digital resources, and physical rare books all point to issues of transmission, reception, and interpretation central to Romanticism and literature in general. For example, I can’t imagine a Romanticism course that did not take into account Coleridge’s decision to add glosses to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The ideas of reception and interpretation that Coleridge brings to the fore in his poem can be usefully extended to discussions of the way media affects meaning. Perhaps we should consider bringing the questions about digital and printed materials that a lot of us have been discussing on this blog and elsewhere into our classrooms. I’d be interested to know if you or others have tried this. How do students respond when asked to tackle the same questions that we’re addressing here?