Copy, right?

There is something about the written word, something about the book, something about the art of these things, that I have always found compelling. The shape of the letters on the page, their arrangement, the way thoughts-as-expressed take up space, the smell and feel and weight of a bound volume — they’re all precious to me. While I have fully loaded up on Kindle books (oh, have I ever) for the cheap and easy reading fix and for travel convenience (it’s a pain to carry all of Hume’s major works on a plane), I find that for the books I really love and for the ones most important to my work, only a hard copy will do. Reading isn’t just about acquiring access to content — reading is about interacting with content as information and as object for me. I am happy to have bought some books in both electronic and hardcopy versions, because these two copies address different needs and interests for me.

The very construction of a book, as they are typically organized in the linguistic and historical systems with which I am most familiar, is a grand teacher of a set of strategies for finding, retaining, and managing information content. There is a way to interact with the book-as-technology, a set of behaviors that make the best use of it. One looks at the table of contents, at the index, at the front matter of various kinds. One thumbs through the illustrations (if there are any) and makes note of the appendices.

Me, I read the end first. Always. A book is simultaneously both map and journey, and I like to know where I’m going — it makes the steps along the way there even more rich. The map/journey itself, however, is more than just a set or sequence of signs — as an object, there is something more to it than that.

One thing I have never owned (although I have appreciated the opportunity to see examples of the art) is an illuminated manuscript. I’m not talking about a printed book or copy that someone has made from an illuminated manuscript — I’m talking about a genuinely hand-scribed, hand-bound, original piece of art. This is a book in which each letter is the product of an individual act of careful artistic labor, representing the intense investment of the full attention of its creator. Such a book is more than its content — one wonders (or at least I wonder) about the nature of the relationship between content and representational medium in such books, where they seem so plainly inseparable in a way that renders the content very nearly sacred.

That isn’t to say that printed matter cannot be fascinating as a form of artistic creation. I have a print of a map of Romania that I picked up in Brasov (home of the first printing press in Romania), for example, that I value not as an original piece (it isn’t — the original, from the early 1900s, is a fascinating bit of work that I wouldn’t even know how to find right now, and would probably cost more than my house) but as a fine example of the printer’s art. It is an exercise, in its way, not so very different from illumination, at least to the degree that the typesetter and engraver must make certain very careful decisions about the mechanism and means of reproduction. Hand-set moveable type printing, which is time and labor-intensive in ways that are different from hand illumination, is also an attentive work of art. That it may produce many copies very quickly is more side-effect than the aesthetic point of the exercise.

[I’ll spare y’all a trip to Walter Benjamin-town right now, although this is exactly the point at which I probably ought to go there. Follow the link and you can take yourself!]

A printer's mould from the press at St. Nicholas in Brasov

A printer’s mould from the press at St. Nicholas in Brasov

When I come back again to illumination, I find it now runs up against a world very different from the one in which the practice began. Now, in the age (pace Benjamin) of mechanical reproduction, copying content is relatively easy, as is its storage, distribution, maintenance, alteration, etc. Even the form of reproduction is text (that is, content) in a digital economy. Yet the ease of creation, reproduction, and distribution is balanced against the attempt to protect the investment of artistic/cognitive labor involved in generating content (copyright laws, etc.), in ways quite different from the way content worked back when relatively few folks were literate and when books were a precious rarity.

Once upon a time, each copy was its own work.

And maybe: The map that is a journey is also the landscape itself.[2]

All of this is ultimately leading me to an odd example: Benjamin Harff’s beautiful illuminated volume of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.[1] The text is computer printed (as is the art, which was scanned after it was created and then printed), although the binding and illuminations are done by hand. The item is a one-of-a-kind thing, produced as an academic exercise. It is not, as far as I know, approved for publication or produced under the auspices of the Tolkien estate (which still holds the copyright on the original text). The artist characterizes the book as a “personal artistic work” rather than a product meant for profit, and did not receive specific permission from the estate. Once upon a time (pre-Gutenberg) such a volume would have been done entirely by hand, and would have been shared in a relatively limited fashion (limits created by resource availability and time, among other things). As it is right now, it is a unique and rather beautiful object, a singular version of otherwise broadly available content. The art of its assembly belongs to Harff (in the legal sense), and the content to the Tolkien estate.

In the comments on Pieter Collier’s Tolkien Library interview with Harff linked above, there are several posters interested in whether or not a printed (so, mass-produced) version of Harff’s illuminated Silmarillion  might ever be available. The artist himself has only made one, although given the way he set things up, it is theoretically possible to set and print it again (although cost-prohibitive, particularly with regard to the hand-binding). If he had permission from the Tolkien estate, he could contract with a publisher to mass-produce it (with the publisher then bearing the production cost). He could even choose to self-publish an electronic version, saving himself the trouble of binding the thing.

If we render his art, his illuminations, only as more content, then there seems to be little reason why one wouldn’t want to scan, print, reproduce, etc. this text, provided ownership issues could be sorted out. Yet I find myself wanting to resist this convenience. My concern isn’t about authenticity (which is the usual concern one raises about mass-produced copies of a work) — it’s about recognizing the nature of the combination of text and illumination and binding in a way that treats that combination as more than just variations on content.


[1] h/t to Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing for the link

[2] Where’s Borges when you need him?

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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