About “History of Books”

A course for undergraduate and graduate students at Northeastern University, Fall 2016

  • Undergraduate Meetings: MW 2:50-4:30
  • Graduate Meetings: W 2:50-5:45
  • Instructors: Erika Boeckeler (Holmes Hall 427) and Ryan Cordell (Nightingale Hall 415)
  • Office Hours:
    • Boeckeler: W 12-1, Th  1:30-2:30, and by appointment
    • Cordell: M 10-11am, R 3:00-4:00pm, and by appointment

What is a book? This class introduces you to the major stages in the creation, production, and cultural life of books through the ages, and thinks through the future of books in today’s world of new media. We will ask and answer questions like: Does it matter that people in the past read “the same” books we read today but in vastly different forms? What relationship is there between the technical, economic, and social conditions of books’ creation and the way scholars interpret them? How did early printers print illustrations; how did they print in color? How do we decide which from the multiple authoritative versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the “real” play? If Shakespeare had nothing to do with printing, who then were Shakespeare’s invisible collaborators? What is the future of books in a digital age?

To begin answering these and other questions, you will learn to identify and interpret key features of books and manuscripts through hands-on experiences with works from the medieval to the modern in archives and special collections. Course topics include: bibliography (the art of book description), format throughout the ages, publishing and audiences, typography, modes of illustration, seriality, the circulation of books, cutting and pasting, non-book printing and non-paper texts, maps, digitization, electronic literature. Students will gain fluency in the key debates in Book History over: how book and media technology change perceptions of language, how scholars can (or should) model “print culture,” and how the social dimensions of books affect our reading. Through these debates, we will trace the evolution of Book History from a marginal discipline to its current, central role within literary studies.