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.