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  • Playful Letters: A Study in Early Modern Alphabetics by Erika Mary Boeckeler
  • Sujata Iyengar (bio)
Playful Letters: A Study in Early Modern Alphabetics. By Erika Mary Boeckeler. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017. Illus. Pp. xiv + 286.

This elegant, entertaining, exquisitely illustrated, and erudite book introduces readers to the early modern European world of what the author dubs "letterature": "discourses composed self-reflexively of letters" (1), including but not limited to "acrostics; rebuses; anagrams; letter puns both acoustic and visual; Roman numerals; assonance and alliteration; meta-alphabetical printed, painted, engraved, stamped, and written texts and images; ABC books and songs; alphabet origin stories; figured and historiated alphabets; political alphabet reform" (5). Letterature, Boeckeler suggests, foregrounds the often fragile relationships that readers forge among sound (phoneme), image (grapheme), and word (lexeme). Influenced by alphabet studies and alphabetics (and indirectly, deploying an intermedial neoformalism), material studies, typography and book design, and linguistics and language theory, Boeckeler offers sharp, fresh, and often lyrical case studies to argue that early modern alphabetics, and in particular their linking of letterforms and the human body, "produced new modes of readerly consciousness" (2). These modes of consciousness not only permitted but also [End Page 301] encouraged a constant and playful readerly awareness of the ongoing conversation among sound, image, and meaning initiated by letterforms—a type of reading Boeckeler calls (perhaps less happily) "letteracy" (2).

The book's theoretically sophisticated argument moves us through readings of letters as images and letters as performances, and culminates in a discussion of how letters were foundational to a political and pan-European civil project. Chapter 1, "Body Type, Type Faces," historicizes and theorizes Geofroy Tory's 1529 Champ Fleury, the first book to use human figures to stand for and as letters, and a text (writes Boeckeler) long considered a masterpiece by graphic designers and art historians. Focusing on the "polysemous" nature of Tory's embodied letterforms (27), Boeckeler contrasts Tory's apparent desire, on the one hand, to standardize and normalize both letterforms and human forms with, on the other hand, his "playful letters" that "recontextualiz[e] . . . alphabetic semiotic units through letter puns . . . [and] acrostics" (49). These and other ludic devices undercut Tory's own emphasis on measurement, accuracy, and imagined graphic underlays between human forms and letterforms.

Chapter 2, "Body Language: Human Alphabets," begins with Peter Flötner's 1534 Menschenalphabet, which took Tory's schema—in which letters were imagined to correspond with the idealized proportions of the human body—a stage further: contorted human bodies themselves, singly or in combinations (sometimes mischievously erotic), shape the letters. The progression from Tory to Flötner, suggests Boeckeler, brings into relief the social and kinesthetic facets of reading (63). Later sections of this chapter investigate multiple states of figured Ovidian alphabets alongside the "anagrammatic" potential of other early modern guides to literacy such as the humble hornbook. Chapter 3, "Type/Face in Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portraiture," considers the fascinating ways in which the artist embedded his initials and signature (his monogram) into his art; here Boeckeler argues that "early modern visual artists . . . see[] elements of personal identity embedded in letter shapes" (98). More fundamentally, this chapter makes the case for our seeing letters themselves as—as well as in—images, for considering letterature as art and analyzing letterforms with the same attention we give to more recognizably artistic modes.

Chapter 4 will be of greatest interest to Shakespeareans. It discusses Richard III, King Lear, and Titus Andronicus. Richard's "deformity" and the C-shaped (or rather G-shaped) curvature of his spine are informed, argues Boeckeler, by early modern debates surrounding orthography. Early orthographers were just beginning to distinguish among English phonemes; John Hart (1569), carefully noting the difference between the hard and soft G (G/J), even suggests the creation of a new grapheme to take account of this letter's dual valency (133). And of course, the ambiguity of G in Richard III dramatizes the conflicts among phoneme, grapheme, and lexeme: "In problematizing the G's split phonemic value through George [End Page 302] and Gloucester, the play links orthography with political succession and allies early modern spelling reform...


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pp. 301-303
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