Technologies of Use

Clues to book use in the early modern period are found in the marks that readers left in and on their books. Using a book meant making it one's own, often by annotating it, binding it, or putting it to use in particular and sometimes surprising contexts. A printed book, moreover, can itself tell us about the strategies of use required for it to accomplish its meaning. The first section of the exhibition explores the ways in which a book's forms anticipated, enabled and sometimes determined particular kinds of use. (To take a simple example, a small book asks to be held and maybe carried: a pocket book is at once a textual form and a category of use.) Features of the book now often taken for granted, like the title page or basic page layout, were in this period more clearly understood to be interpretive guides, either by implying a use or by actually guiding the eye through typographical variation or the arrangement of words on the page. A feature like illustration, although sometimes only ornamental, could constitute a sophisticated technology of use. Scientific illustrations, for example, had a range of functions: they attested to the diffusion of new technologies (such as the microscope); they enabled the reader to "see" textual information and the material world in a new way; and they worked aesthetically and commercially by heightening the visual pleasure offered by the book.

Using books implies an active and productive engagement with them, blurring any clear distinction between author and reader, transmission and reception, knowing and doing. Indeed, use per se poses a challenge to the book's authority and integrity, not only in terms of torn pages, broken spines and missing covers, but also because a reader's use makes him or her integral to the production of meaning. In this respect, it is possible to see that when books presented themselves as conspicuous wholes (an author's "Works" or corpus, for example, or the Bible understood as the book), they were in some sense protecting themselves against use, by asking instead to be read.