Department of English

"Our Books, Ourselves"

Fri, December 5, 2008

Graduate students in Prof. Barchas’ fall seminar “Graphic Design and the Literary Text” have curated a small exhibit on the anatomy of the printed book, using a few notable anatomy texts from the HRC’s collections.  The exhibit, entitled “Our Books, Ourselves” and facilitated by Dr. Molly Schwartzburg of the HRC, opened on 5 December and should remain up through February.  Please come to the HRC’s second floor (the case is in the lobby of the reading room) to take a look. 

The habit of personifying books, of granting them bodies and selves, extends back further than the technology of print: Plato discussed books as the children of their writers; the ancient Rabbis spoke of the Torah as a bride; and the image of the written word as a human body nearly saturates the Gospel of John, where Christ himself is “the Word made flesh.” But nowhere is this traditional metaphor as fixed as in the language of bibliophiles.  In strict bibliographical terms, a book can sport headpieces, tailpieces and running-heads, footnotes, shoulder-notes, and head-notes, facing-pages, and, of course, a spine.  A piece of metal type for even a single letter can have (though this defies anatomical logic) a beard, feet, and shoulder of its own.  Bibliophiles know that the body of a book is often protected from the elements by real (animal) skin and occasionally needs doctoring. This exhibit showcases a book’s anatomical parts with a selection of anatomy books from the hand-press period, including a sickly Renaissance book with an exposed and broken spine. 

The showpiece anatomy text in our exhibit is Andreas Vesalius’s famous De humani corporis fabrica (1543).  A literary appropriation of the language of anatomy is instanced by Phineas Fletcher’s The Purple Island (1633), a sprawling epic poem that James Joyce described as “a kind of colored anatomical chart of the human body.” The rise of scientific anatomy, as historian Jonathan Sawday points out, marked “an incisive recomposition of the human body, which entailed an equivalent refashioning of the means by which people made sense of the world around them.” Especially their books, he might have added, for implicit in the language of bibliography remains, to this day, the language of anatomy. 

We hope the examples in our exhibit illustrate some of the ways in which all of us may see our selves and our bodies in our books.

– Yaser Amad, Janine Barchas, William Burdette, Matthew Davies, Hala Herbly, Matthew Reilly, Rachel Schneider, and Dustin Stewart.

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