- Reading in the Flesh: Anthropodermic Bibliopegy and the Haptic Response
How do books impact our bodies and how do our bodies respond to books? Three decades after purchasing The Norton Anthology of English Literature, I still cannot look at that volume without the memory of physical pain: the eye strain necessitated by its tiny font; the weight of its 2,600+ pages in my backpack and on my lap; the traction needed (and generally accomplished by incessant finger-licking) to separate the onionskin pages. As an undergraduate, nothing turned me away from the study of literature so much as that dreaded volume. It wasn’t simply that the book was physically burdensome; more problematic was that its clumsy and attractionless features meant that I felt no genuine connection to its contents. This, in contrast to a slim sheath of poems by Emily Dickinson gifted to me by my parents years earlier: although I didn’t understand much of the book’s language, I loved the large generous print, the thick scalloped pages, the delicate vellum cover. Reading the volume made me feel deeply connected—to Dickinson, whose dash-filled poems I tried to emulate; to my parents, who were also lovers of literature; and to the book itself, which was thin and spindly as I was.
The examples of the Norton Anthology and the Dickinson volume make explicit what many of us intuitively know—that the book is a technology for engaging the human sensorium as much as it is a vehicle for the transmission of information. Indeed, in its latter function, the book is notoriously ineffective, especially from a twenty-first-century perspective. As Kenya Hara has written, “When you think about it, books as a medium for stocking definite information may be inconvenient. They’re heavy, they’re bulky, they get dirty and they fade with time. Their size is specifically tailored, yet they house an amount of information that could be easily contained in a tiny digital memory.”1 Despite these disadvantages, however, books endure because of our deep attraction to their material form. Our eyes relish [End Page 451] the book’s wide margins, our fingers rove its textured pages, our bilaterally symmetrical bodies detect their mirrored counterparts in the book’s verso and recto structure.2 In short, the physical book creates intimacy and reciprocity with readers. Its persistence over time, then—despite dire warnings of the book’s demise—can only be a function of its ability to serve as something more than mere vessel.
Scholars of the book have yet to concede this point fully, however. To be sure, there are nods to the importance of the material book, especially in the fields of bibliographic and textual studies. Roger Chartier was one of the first to remind us that “readers . . . never confront abstract, idealized texts detached from any materiality. They hold in their hands or perceive objects and forms whose structures and modalities govern their reading or hearing, and consequently the possible comprehension of the text read or heard.”3 David Scott Kastan argues similarly “that literature exists, in any useful sense, only and always in its materializations, and that these are the conditions of its meaning rather than merely the containers of it.”4 But even as they focus on the book’s materiality, these accounts reaffirm the primacy of meaning-making rather than sensory experience. Jerome McGann’s use of the term “bibliographic code” in describing a book’s design features typifies this trend, making clear that his interest is in the work of decoding or semiology. When he asks “what kind of text do we face when the decorative and apparitional forms of book design and typography are driven to embody ideas and conceptual content?” he necessarily imagines the book’s bibliographic features (“design and typography”) as contributing to a larger ideational imperative (“ideas and conceptual content”) rather than having a sensual immediacy of their own.5 Jonathan Walker operates under a similar assumption when he wonders how, along with “the words on the page,” a book’s “materiality might jointly labor in the production of . . . meaning.”6 In these accounts sense-making trumps sensuous experience, and...