What does it mean to use a book, rather than read it? How do books define the conditions of their own use, and in so doing imagine the social and theoretical significance of that use? This exhibition explores the inseparable relationship between technologies of book use and forms of thought and theory in the period between 1500 and 1700. Prioritizing the material and social phenomenon of book use, in contrast to the relatively abstracted notion of reading, foregrounds the place of practice in the history of the book. It thereby disrupts clear distinctions between author and reader, text and context, the book as knowledge and the book as material object. Understanding the early book as a practical tool makes it possible to see its many material forms (e.g., binding, typography, title page, margins, index, illustrations) in terms of the knowledge systems that both shaped and were shaped by them.
To use a book is to engage with it as a set of forms and as a condition of thought; in this sense, the history of book use and the history of theoretical speculation are entwined. Drawing examples from professional texts in the disciplines of law and medicine, from literary, religious and educational texts, and from practical manuals on cooking, carving, measuring, memorizing, praying, surveying and traveling, the exhibit explores how early books invited a wide range of uses, asking readers to move within them in particular ways, to write in them, manipulate them, apply them in worlds beyond the book. Crucially, the show argues that where books reflected on such uses and on the textual practices that made them possible, they discovered (or invented) theory.
Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio
Note: Images in this Web site are numbered according to their case order in the exhibit checklist. A publication, also entitled Book Use, Book Theory 1500 - 1700 was published to accompany the exhibition.