The codex book has been called “the perfect invention,” “the first mass-produced commodity,” and “the most powerful object of our time.” It has survived the digital revolution not only intact but revitalized, as hardback sales now outpace ebooks, Amazon is building brick-and-mortar bookstores, and “digital detox” is being touted as a cure for stress and screen addiction. What makes this 2000-year-old technology so resilient, so good to think with? What lessons might it hold for the future of information, literacy, and human expression?
This course offers an introduction to the technology of the book from ancient wax tablets to 21st-century tablet PCs. To understand the affordances and permutations of books as material things, we will turn to those who know them best: the novelists, poets, playwrights, and philosophers who write them. Readings will cluster around four or five English-language case studies and will include at least one very old poem, a Shakespeare play, a modern novel, and a piece of born-digital literature. Frequent field trips will take us to UW Special Collections in Allen Library, where we will gain hands-on experience with real medieval manuscripts, Renaissance printed books, Victorian serials, and contemporary artists’ books. Evaluation will be based on participation, in-class exercises, two special projects, and two medium-length papers. Students will leave the course with knowledge of exemplary works of English literary history along with fundamental concepts in the study of media.