A thing is the book of itself

A book offered to the eye alone is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. To meet a book on its own terms, you have to touch it, hold it, turn its pages. And yet the more a book is handled the faster it breaks down. That’s fine for a mass market paperback on your shelves, not so good for for old, fragile, or singular books your museum is tasked with preserving. It’s a general dilemma for museums: how do you reconcile two commitments – broad access, scrupulous conservation – when one seems intractable to the other? In the case of books, the answer that leaps to mind is digitization, and that’s where this piece begins. I should also say, I’m a beginner here, and the piece showcases my curiosity and my ignorance in about equal measure.

A Thing Is the Book of Itself

Exeter Book f. 123v. Note the runes four lines from the bottom
articulated by the punctus. The large gash is thought to have
been left by a hot poker or burning stick. Muir.

A couple of years ago I published a book of translations from Old English. It disappeared without a trace but never mind. Working with facsimiles of the Exeter Book, I had made new editions of the source poems. Though they were digital, those facsimiles opened my head to the materiality of the document bearing up the text. Mottled beige and cream of the parchment. Interlinear translations, folio numbers pencilled in, Exeter Cathedral’s stamp of institutional ownership and control. Little holes pricked by pins and big holes left by fire. I saw it all in facsimile. At times I felt I could touch the thing. I was drawn especially to the punctus, the only punctuation mark the scribe uses. It works as comma, full stop, paragraph break, section break, change of speaker and turn of thought. I call it material because its shape ⬩ a diamond the width of a nib ⬩ shows by its axis the angle the scribe held his pen at.

Exeter Book f. 123v, detail. S-rune, punctus, R-rune. Muir.

Made bold by remote access, I claimed more for the punctus than maybe I should have. I said its unsystematic use made the poems more heterodox and material, less doctrinal or otherworldly, than we had been led to think. I said scholars had suppressed material features of the poems in order to project their own Christian values onto them. I’m not now saying I was wrong – but there was something headlong about my argument that made it easier to shrug off. Facsimiles let me fly to conclusions I might otherwise have marked a path to others could walk. I did note that a facsimile is derivative, removed from what it simulates. Was the closeness I felt to the poems just an artefact of my practice?

The Exeter Book folios are out of my reach. I have instead good digital facsimiles on my laptop. I can’t smell them or touch them or study the texture of the vellum at an erasure mark under different lights. But to zoom in on a hair space between an insular n and i feels … intimate. Is that close, or distant, or both? I would not be the first translator to have built their relationship to the poems, into the poems.

Since publishing Unlikeness Is Us I’ve left my teaching job and returned to school to study the exhibition of books and printed matter. And that has me thinking more about the facsimile. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on mechanical reproduction of the artwork, insists that by abolishing the work’s uniqueness and remoteness, mechanical copying destroys its aura, a glamour which had surrounded it ever since art sprang from the thigh of ritual. “[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art,” he writes. “[R]eproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q. (“Elle a chaud au cul”).
Norton Simon Museum.

Aura arises when an esteemed object, no matter how close objectively, remains, through our memory of its cult value and its ritual function, subjectively distant. One copy made by machine lessens the distance: though inwardly smaller, it eclipses its original by proximity to us. A multitude of copies, cheap and disposable, think Mona Lisa on a coffee mug, a transmigration Duchamp had great fun helping along, closes it the rest of the way.

But a century’s traffic in cheap weightless images, moving now at a speed and in an excess Benjamin could never have conceived, has not made ordinary people more free, as he said it should, and, far from raising a bulwark against fascism, as he also promised, it seems only to have greased its rails. His prophetic essay is far from the last word on aura – that’s how dialectics go – and there are approaches to the auratic object that have little to do with the levelling of mechanical or digital reproduction.

Esteem creates aura, aura enforces distance, distance enhances aura, aura demands esteem. It’s a feedback loop establishing an oppressive homeostasis. The secrecy and remove by which our museums and libraries esteem an object – its removal from the sight and touch of all but a few its gatekeepers allow in – can only enhance that object’s aura. What would happen to that aura if a revered singular object were, instead, unhidden, made more widely, more democratically, available? What would happen to the object itself? How would those who meet it change and be changed by it? What costs would an institution charged with protecting it have to accept or endure?

The problem in the present context: exhibition of books and printed matter. Books are made for physical handling, but most of the books institutions find worth holding are too old, fragile, or singular to be touched by just any hands. Only the gatekeepers – archivists, librarians, conservators, curators – and the scholars they admit may meet the object as it was made to be met.

Again, books are a technology for the cold storage of thought, and they must be acted on, their pages lifted and turned, in order to release their contents. Even to be met as an art object the book must be held in hand. Then it enlivens many sense faculties at once: sight, touch and proprioception, smell, hearing. The typographer-poet Robert Bringhurst puts it well:

The book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made.

But it is generally felt that, when exhibited, a book must be protected from such handling. As Graham Foster, of the University of London’s Institute of English Studies, explains, “More often than not, the manuscripts on display are extremely valuable and delicate, so they are contained within cases, meaning only one opening can be displayed.” A book in a vitrine is reduced to what it has in common with a painting. By design, its own and the vitrine’s, all its other surfaces are hidden from view, beyond what a mirror behind it might reveal.

If aura supervenes on distance and secrecy, then stilling the book in one posture, for viewing and admiration at a remove, may only cement that aura. Such operations can improve ticket sales, but they do not serve the thing or its human encounters.

This is a functional and epistemic dilemma for any museum or library committed to displaying vulnerable books and manuscripts in its collection. Show a well-guarded book inadequately, or lay it out more broadly, and expose it to damage and degradation? The problem grows keener as curators heed the call for more-interactive and hands-on displays. Participatory exhibits responsive to visitors’ wants and needs are part of the sector’s work to democratize, diversify, and decolonize its own culture. A museum or library that holds its books at a protective remove bucks that trend, and risks appearing, and maybe being, an elitist preserve for experts and initiates.

I want now to look at some approaches museums have taken to this problem of access and maybe unpack some of their premises. I should first state a few of my own. One I’ve already alluded to: encounter with a book is haptic – tactile and proprioceptive. A book offered only for looking has been treated as a painting.

A second is a book’s haecceity or “thisness,” a Scholastic concept I map to the Buddhist notion of Tathātā, “suchness.” Suchness is what about a thing makes it that thing and no other. An eye of suchness opens sometimes in the Western counter-tradition, as when William Blake, printing from plates a book with no two copies the same, inscribes the words “every thing that lives is Holy.” That it’s usually printed “everything” is the whole problem in capsule. And Deleuze and Guattari gist suchness when they say, make a map, not a tracing. Suchness does not admit of copies, only navigable resemblances.

Western museums, given by long habit to generalization and classification – as if things were merely degraded versions of the Ideas we have of them – are slowly coming to a more concrete, immanent view. “In every work of art,” Hölling, Brewer, and Ammann write, introducing The Explicit Material, “there is an irreducible singularity; the work remains indescribable, reluctant to the assignment of a singular meaning or interpretation.” That singularity will change over time and may be realized only phenomenologically. An intuition of suchness may stir a feeling once dismissed as “primitive” for an object’s sentience or life force:

[M]aterials have more recently been considered as having agency, the power to act, and lives of their own, thus challenging the anthropocentric, post-Enlight­enment tradition…. [M]aterials are ineffable. Established concepts and categories fail to pin them down. This is why we have to follow them – their joining with other materials, forming into a work, becoming an object of conservation, and decaying. Materials are … vibrant intermediaries.

Suchness accounts for the charge of meaning objects have with no appeal to aura.

A third premise is impermanence, often conflated with materiality, because matter showcases it so well. Everything compounded falls apart. Hölling et al. question the “continuing assumptions that artworks and artefacts are made of static, inert matter – inactive, stagnant, and passive ‘objects’ of investigation, subordinated to hygienic orders of museum vitrines or of preserved historical sites.” Later in the same collection, David Lowenthal avers:

Every inanimate object, like every living being, undergoes continual alteration, ultimately perishing. Cumulative corrosion extinguishes every form and feature. Things either morph into other entities, dismember into fragments or dissolve into unrecognizable components. Gradual change may be imperceptible within the span of a human lifetime or even longer, but it is eventually inexorable. All of us, not only curators, confront mortal dissolution. But awareness of it goes against the grain.

Fierce conservation and timid display practices together make museum objects stays against entropy. And I get it, I feel the impulse myself, I too would like to live forever, vicariously. But the Western hallucination of Eternal Being is near neighbour to schemes of social and racial hierarchy – not to mention the colonial project they spring from – we’ve said we mean to dismantle. We live among nouns, but we live as verbs, and so do things in our care, to the degree we let them.

A book in the ether

Lindisfarne Gospels f. 27r. Incipit page to Gospel of Matthew.
British Museum.

A high-resolution digital facsimile appears to solve the problem. It’s weightless, almost instantaneously transmissible, and in principle infinitely reproducible. A volume like the Lindisfarne Gospels can be unbound, translated into bits and packets, bound again, and returned to its lightless, climate-controlled shelf unharmed. I have loved these images. I pore over them in my study in far-off Washington State. They’ve helped draw me toward a new career in museums. And they attune me, somewhat, to the artistry that went into slaughtering goats and processing their hides for parchment, harvesting oak galls for ink, and liquefying gold for illumination, and to the centuries of trial and error, apprenticeship and mastery, that go into an Insular Half-Uncial a.

Lindisfarne Gospels, f. 3r, detail. An illuminated O. British Museum.

I say somewhat. These images are to the tangible page what a photograph of a sunset is to being there. Vision is, as all the senses are, synaesthetic, and seeing that ordinary a or a majestic illuminated capital O, I have a sense of touching it also. If my sense remains dim, that’s because the image is two-dimensional: all the page’s close-pressed layers have been jammed into one surface. What Robert Bringhurst says of the letterpress page, its roundedness, is even more so in manuscript.

The cast letters are locked in a frame and placed in a printing press, where they are inked. Their image is then imprinted into the paper, producing a tactile and visual image. The color and sheen of the ink join with the smooth texture of crushed paper, recessed into the whiter and rougher fibers surrounding the letters and lines. A book produced by this means is a folding inscription, a flexible sculpture in low relief.

A facsimile trades depth and intimacy for ease and ubiquity. It’s a sometimes fair trade that often hides its real terms. And innovations meant to improve those terms seem merely to distort them. For instance, the British Museum’s Turning the Pages software, which “digitally recreates the manuscripts so that the user can virtually turn pages and examine every word” (Foster), is a parody of the act of reading a book – a simulacrum of the sort you might find in Madam Tussaud’s (if they had a book-arts wing). Plato got two things right about the image: We want very much to take it for what it’s an image of. And as long as it’s that sort of derivative, it disappoints.

A book mimicked

You can make high-quality physical facsimiles of a book. Artisanal bookmakers like A.P. Manuscripts do it. The images, as images, are exquisite, and the books are lovingly made, with heavy paper stock, sewn and glued bindings, bespoke cow-skin covers. But it’s paper, not parchment, and books are sewn and glued in the house style, so to speak. The book itself is no facsimile, only the images in it are, and they suffer the same limitation as digital ones, of existing flatly, in two dimensions.

A few years ago, I taught Anne Carson’s Nox, a facsimile of an artist’s book she made after a brother’s death, in a visual poetry course. The images reproduce the look of crinkles and tears of paper scraps, tea stains on receipts, the fading of old photographs – physical objects in Carson’s original – in a sort of photostatic trompe d’oeil. And the fidelity of the images only widens the gulf between them and their originals. The image of a tea-stained receipt steps in as a flat, mute, inert substitute for its original; you reach out to touch it, by hand or in mind, and find you’ve been fooled. You may feel a subtle loss here, traces of sadness, frustration, anger, or dismay. How, I asked my students, does this distress we feel relate to the loss the book is quote-unquote about? A consensus formed that the published book is an elegy for the singular original Carson made: it translates an otherwise unsayable human elegy into a language of materials.

Anne Carson, Nox. Writing with Images.

Having led them down this path I discovered I couldn’t go any further on it. In one of those moments of self-discovery I love and miss teaching for, I found myself holding the book up high and crying, “it’s document porn, people! document porn!” I meant that the dynamic the images create is more erotic than elegiac. The thing stirs bookish desires. Promised contact with an actual other, offered the tactile vibrancy of notebook paper, receipt paper, paper crinkles and folds, impress of pen on paper, you get a semblance instead, and when the encounter’s over, you feel that much more alone. Maybe this is what happens whenever a return smalls itself to replica.

Why not make a new freestanding thing? Jen Bervin and Marta Werner do it in their Gorgeous Nothings, producing facsimiles of envelopes Emily Dickinson composed on, without asking you to imagine you have a sheaf of envelopes in hand. Instead the book wholly recontextualizes them, offering the panels as self-sufficient thing-poems, with diplomatic transcription and commentary. A physical facsimile may be a useful adjunct in the display of rare books, but it falls just as far short of the original as a digital one does. Even if a facsimile were to capture all the layeredness of its original – even if it reproduced the original atom for atom – that original would still be out of reach. Its past and future, its human exchanges (possession, interpretation, modification), its material conditions (placement, movement, growth, decay), all belong to its haecceity, this moment.

The Gorgeous Nothings, Jen Bervin and Marta Werner’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s
envelope writing, culminates in this majestic visual poem.

A book unbound

Compositiones variae unbound in its storage box.
Lucca, Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana. Photo by Thea Burns.

Rare books are often removed from their bindings for repair, digital scanning, or storage. In her account of the material changes undergone by the Compositiones variae, an eighth-century manuscript held at the Biblioteca Capitolare Feliniana in Lucca, Italy, Thea Burns writes that the book under study is presently stored unbound, “the loose folios … kept in a custom-made box alongside the leather-covered wood boards and a now separate spine lining.” Why not unbind a book for display? Recall, the twin problems confronting those who display old or fragile books are, first, that the books must, for their own good, be protected from haptic encounter, and, second, that the codex, when intact, by design hides, even when open, almost all its other surfaces from view. Unbinding the folios would address the latter issue while leaving the former untouched. Glass cases like those at the German Museum of Modern Literature (see below) might set out pages in reading order to be wandered among. With mounting, mirrors, and lighting, the obverse of the page could also be seen. Have I missed exhibitions that take this approach? Does it pose dangers to the leaves I don’t know of? I am a neophyte.

A book as architecture

Claire Hughes, an English exhibition designer, describes a visit to the German Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach, where literary and para-literary documents are displayed in an unusual way. She tells of a domain of “flickering banks of documents, stacked in sectional displays, vertically lit by gorgeous LED wands.” The exhibition leaves books intact but lays out them out among documents for maximum visual contact. Hughes describes how the exhibition’s “multiple layers of views, reflections and shadows echo the complex points of view and layers of meaning within literature,” which squares with what I’ve seen online of the exhibition and the architecture framing it.

The presentation seems to translate, not a book, but the experience of reading a book. It makes me wonder, if a book must be protected from physical contact, might a curator’s own tactile, haptic, proprioceptive experience of it be translated into a publicly accessible form – into, for instance, architecture’s language of materials, objects, and spaces, of sightlines and pathways?

“Three dimensions of a literary archive: lit by LED wands to be seen from all sides in plan, elevation and section.
Die Seele Exhibition at the German Modern Literature Museum in Marbach.” Photo and caption by Hughes.
Susan Howe, from “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards.”

The poetry of Susan Howe shows that translation is possible in the other direction: her fragments of documents work as glyphs in a collage-language which translates the experience of roving through archives in search of pattern and meaning. Could a museum translate the kinetics of reading – eye movements, hand motions, all the sensations a book gives via its contact with a body – into the kinetic language of museums: eye movements again, standing in place, shifting in place, breaking left, circling round – all the ways a body moves exploring?

Maybe a museum honours the book by expressing it – the experience of reading it – in the museum’s own phenomenological language. Then the book can be safe and happy, knowing it has been found meaningful as text and as thing. To have digital facsimiles made of you must be discouraging – as if you were only good for death masks now. But to be translated into another kind of language! That would mean you mattered as matter.

“It’s not just architects who need construction plans. This is one of many ‘Phantasiebauplans’ [imaginal blueprints]:
a drawing of the narrative construction for a novel.” Photo and caption by Hughes.

Leaving the exhibition, Hughes felt powerfully that “a poem takes up quite a large space in the world and, as for a novel, well, it’s a positively towering three-dimen­sional object that should be seen in section as well as in plan.” This approach would literalize her insight.

A book touched, a page turned

Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Center, Art Gallery of Ontario.
The facility is open to the public at specified times and by appointment.

If showing books by translating the experience of reading them is the most extravagant conception in this essay, and allowing a sacrificial book to die at the hands of its humans is the most irresponsible, the most sober-minded is just to grant to ordinary people the privileges given scholars and archivists. Let more people meet the damn books in person! The Marvin Gelber Print and Drawing Study Center, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, gestures in this direction, inviting members of the public to view, under the supervision of museum employees, prints and drawings in their collection. The need to book an appointment a month in advance likely deters casual visitors. There is no reason in principle the practice couldn’t be applied to at least some old or rare books, and the wait time shortened, for that matter. Instruction and supervision would be more intensive than for prints and drawings, and a museum would have to commit considerable resources to the undertaking.

A book let die (immodest proposal)

I’ve left this one for last. Am not sure I want to be held responsible for it even as mere idea. The idea is just to let the book weather under human use. It would mean affirming the artefact as a life that begins and ends. Elizabeth Pye, in The Explicit Material:

The concept of biography has been used to portray the changes that objects may go through during their existence (their lives), including social encounters and changes in fashion and values…. Material “life events” embracing making, deterioration, repair, discard, and so on, all clearly shape the perception and significance of an object before it enters the museum.

The artefact is a lifeform and lifeforms are transient. Everything compounded comes apart. We like to think an object entering a collection is at that moment plucked from from the stream of history for preservation and study – but acquisition may just be another stage in the its life story. In The Explicit Material, David Lowenthal puts curatorial intervention in such terms:

Metamorphosis – abrasion and accretion, dissolution and amalgamation – varies not only with natural processes but also with human interventions. The pace of change reflects efforts to slow or speed alteration or demise, to restore or improve on previous integrity, to prevent or promote transformation into something else.

The life of an object intersects at all points with our own. Its story can acquire meaning only at that intersection – from which, for us too, there is nowhere to stand apart. Paul Eggert writes in the same collection: “We may think of ourselves as standing outside the life of the work, but in truth we cannot help but edit or conserve within it, take our part in its ongoing life.” If our artefacts can only be towards their deaths and we don’t like it – if we can only be towards our deaths and yet refuse it – if we keep raising metaphysical architectures for the surfaces they offer to our projections of eternal life – if we really are this bad at dying – maybe a book can, as it is let go, teach something inscribed nowhere on its pages.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, before visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

My immodest proposal. At intervals choose a book to return to the event stream it’s been withheld from. Place it on a table in a room any part of the public could enter and sit down at. Maybe offer foam props, a magnifying glass and gloves, some handout describing how archivists and librarians treat the books in their care. Or maybe not. Visitors could turn the leaves, feeling their texture and pliability, or lift the book to feel its heft as a vessel for storing and pouring culture. They could take in with eyes and fingertips the crizzling of an initial’s illuminative gold, and the scribe’s record of the motions of a hand across the leaf’s surface, whether it’s intelligible or looks to them like an asemic garden party. They might walk away having understood nothing! Address that with some supplemental text – or maybe don’t. There’s something to be said for getting nothing.

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, during visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

Well, I love the idea in abstract, hate it applied to any particular book. Can I really imagine Isadore’s Encyclopedia, or a copy of Mandeville’s Travels, or some tattered Book of Hours forgotten by everyone except by a collections database, acquiring marks of human use as freely and spontaneously as Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room acquires spots of color the artist invited visitors to set down? The book might not survive long, but it would live what remains of its life, doing what it was made for. The image coming to mind is human sacrifice. The cost is real, the loss felt deeply, yet a community or even a family might do it anyway, just to get right with reality. And here I’d thought to leave aura behind. 

Yayoi Kusama, Obliteration Room, after visitors. TateShots (Tate Gallery).

POSTSCRIPT. This week in the mail, Printing History, journal of the American Printing History Association, with an essay by Sarah Werner, book historian and digital scholar, called “Working Toward a Feminist Printing History”:

[I]f you are, as I am, committed to the belief that every single copy of a text is unique, thanks both to inevitable printing variants and to the vagaries of its individual life, then an awareness of repetition and variation [in printing] makes an aesthetic based on Penelope’s weaving all the more compelling.

The kinship of text and textile is as powerful to me as that of matter and mother.


Burns, Thea. “The Material Forms of the Past and the ‘Afterlives’ of the Compositiones variae.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 209–235.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt, Harcourt Brace & World, 1968, pp. 219–53.

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographical Style. Version 3.2, Hartley & Marks, 2008.

Carson, Anne. Nox. New Directions, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987, pp. 3–25.

Dickinson, Emily. The Gorgeous Nothings. Edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. New Directions, 2013.

Foster, Graham. “The Challenges of Exhibiting Manuscripts.” English Literary Heritage, 25 November 2014. Accessed 2 December 2014.

Hölling, Hanna B., Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann. “Introduction: Material Encounters.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 1–14.

“How We Do It.” A.P. Manuscripts. Accessed 2 December 2020.

Hughes, Clare. “A Story of Rooms.” Clare Hughes (blog). Accessed 30 November 2020.

The Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV, ca. 700 CE.

Lowenthal, David. “A Sea-Change Rich and Strange.” The Explicit Material, edited by Hanna B. Hölling, Francesca G. Bewer, and Katharina Ammann, Brill, 2019, pp. 17–63.

Muir, Bernard J., editor. The Exeter DVD: The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry. U of Exeter P, 2006.

Patton, Christopher, translator and editor. Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book. Gaspereau, 2018.

TateShots. “Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room.” YouTube, uploaded by Tate, 14 March 2012.