Next year I will be teaching a new course on books that combines my interest in making with my new focus on digital scholarship. This summer I worked with three Brown undergraduates (Elena Newman, Malery Nguyen, and Mara Jovanovic) to invent the course, and especially to think about hands-on projects. Here’s a report on some of the work we’ve done.
(First: A thank-you to the Dean of the College at Brown, who made this possible through the SPRINT program, designed to help students find summer work in the era of COVID.)
The course we’re working towards has a very general title: “Books, Material and Digital.” It will focus on history and skills, combining (I hope) work in Brown’s Book Arts Studio, Center for Digital Scholarship, and the John Hay Library. Combining those three places, and the objects and approaches they represent, is the potential, and the challenge, of the project.
But we’re in none of those places, with none of their specialized equipment and collections. We’re doing this remotely, because this is the summer of the pandemic. One student was in Europe for the first part of the summer, one in Providence, one in Florida. Some of us have supplies, some of us access to stores, some of us in quarantine. It’s a Zoom project, and one that demanded lots of improvisation. That turned out to be a real plus. We need to invent the content as we go along, and make it work with materials that are available.
We spent most of the summer working on books as physical objects. We broke them down into paper, type, and ink, and made each of these things, and, by the end of the summer, a book!
Elena started by making ink:
Malery made paper:
Mara carved type:
We all worked at turning these projects into assignments, balancing what we’ve learned with leaving the assignments open enough for students to explore in class. Here’s my assignment for the codex project, Malery wrote an assignment, and a delightful Twine assignment/poem, on paper making.
Next, we tried each other’s instructions for creating paper, type, and ink. Here’s Elena’s type. She worked with Mara on revisions to her instructions.
This was all done during the great pandemic, which restricted us to tools and material we had available. (That turned out to make it much more interesting.)
I had some success, but mostly failure, trying to make paper.
Mara, in quarantine, used various foods to print with:
Malery carved and made ink and printed letters:
I tried carving type and making ink. I learned something about carving, but mostly about letter forms: trying to copy a letter forces you to look at it very, very closely. Thinking about what’s carvable, with limited skills, forces you to make compromises between ideal and achievable. Same with ink. What to use for a base for the ink? (I followed Malery’s advice to use nari, made from rice flour.) How fine does the pigment need to be? ) My mashed charcoal didn’t work at all. Turmeric was a little better…
Writing followed all of this doing. Mara, citing Tim Ingold’s description of sawing a piece of wood, urged assignments with a “‘ridiculous’ minimum word count.” How to focus writing assignments (or videos) in a way that made them part of learning, a way of thinking through process in order to better improve and understand that process, is an ongoing challenge.
In addition to making things, and writing about process and the ways that these projects might become a syllabus for a course, we took on other topics as well, less practical and more historical and philosophical. We discussed the value of writing about skill. We considered the history of ink. We had a fascinating conversation on just why printed things should be readable, with Mara arguing for a politics and semiotics of queer illegibility, of resisting meaning. I considered making my letters useful only for asemic writing. In this summer of protest, we considered “urgentcraft” and self-publishing.
We experimented with formats: what’s a book? How might we explore the nature of the book as an object.What if we started with a physical book and reorganized it into a variety of other formats, turning it into a loose-leaf binder, and scroll, an exhibit? What does each of those formats make easy or make difficult? How does the experience of reading change?
We thought about the physical and the digital. What might we learn from a a booklet hat keeps transitioning between digital and physical formats?
Behind all of the making and thinking and writing was a concern for the connections between those kinds of creation. The course needs to create pathways for students to think and write about making, and to use making to better understand the history of books and writing and printing and reading. Making, especially making from home without expert instruction, and without the right tools or materials, constantly raised questions that an instructor, or even good materials, would have answered too easily, or never even exposed. Ink from a can, applied with a rubber roller of the right type, doesn’t demand answers to questions about the qualities ink must have in the way that homemade ink that doesn’t work well does. Paper from a package simply works. Paper made using paper-making equipment gets closer to making paper mysterious, problematizing it, but not nearly so well as paper made without the right materials or equipment. It’s not that we’re re-enacting the ignorance of the first creators of these things (Gutenberg knew more about paper and ink and carving than we ever will!) but starting from scratch, or close to it, makes us think about knowledge and assumptions and the nature of expertise. It reveals the complexities that are hidden behind our world of smooth technological surfaces and interfaces.
The end of the summer was approaching, and we decided to create, together, a final project. We would make a child’s letter book, what Mara told us was called, in Montenegro, a Bukvar. We each took six letters of the alphabet to carve and print. Malery made paper and mailed it us. We agreed on a size of each page of our book, but each of us would create whatever we wanted, within our constraints.
Elena created A-F (and Y and Z):
I created G-L:
Mara created L-S:
Malery created S-X:
Mara made a lovely book box for them:
And soon, they’ll be an alphabet book: