The Book as Body: Judging Books by Their Covers

February 27, 2018
Brewer class photo

On, you can find the eau de parfum, Book, for $105—an exclusive fragrance designed by Commodity to meet the needs of those fat-pocketed readers who just don’t have time for real books. It belongs to the “earthy and woody” fragrance family and boasts key notes of sandalwood, bergamot and cypress. “Book tips its hat to the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of the world. Transporting you away to a world of imagination and stories while capturing that quiet moment when you’re curled up with a good book.” One might presume that at $105 per bottle, the book-loving Commodity could afford a copywriter who didn’t trade in sentence fragments, but whatever.

For those in search of something a bit more specific, has got you covered with Paperback, a “Pick-Me-Up” cologne spray: “Sweet and lovely with just a touch of the musty smell of aged paper, Demeter’s Paperback harnesses that scent with a sprinkling of violets and a tasteful dash of potpourri.” Paperback is brought to you by the Demeter Fragrance Library, purveyors of Kitten FurPixie DustDirt and Funeral Home: “A blend of classic white flowers including lilies, carnations, gladiolus, chrysanthemums with stems and leaves, with a hint of mahogany and oriental carpet.” To that discerning crowd for whom the smell of old books and real, actual death just don’t cut it, we suggest Immortal Perfumes’ Dead Writers, a “rich and smoky unisex fragrance” that bypasses the library and leaps straight into the grave.

But we are readers after all. Why pay for a not-so-cheap imitation when you can get the real thing for free? Perhaps there is a certain book sitting on the bookshelf in your basement or tucked between beloved mass-markets and dilapidated hardbacks on your desk—a book you reach for to thumb the worn, velvet binding like an infant obsessed with tags. This book smells like something familiar—your childhood, the first chapter book you read, high school English class, the public library in your hometown, your grandmother’s small but expertly-curated bookshelf: all Twain and no Hemingway. It’s emotional: the feeling, the smell—something you will never fully be able to describe but something that will always remind you of sunny summer afternoons lounging in the fading sunlight, cozy winter nights when you were off-loaded at a relative’s house, and contentious debates about whether or not Caulfield is, himself, a phony. This physical, tactile relationship with books is comforting, relaxing and, as it turns out, a bonafide way of studying literature.  

In Ohio State’s autumn 2017 MEDREN 5611: History of the Book Studies, Professor David Brewer(English) encouraged his students to commit that most sinful literary sin: to judge a book by its cover. In doing so, Brewer believes students may begin to consider how books have shaped the ways we read, the ways we have thought about books themselves and how books have an influence in shaping and changing the world. Undergraduate and graduate students from history, history of art, medieval and Renaissance studies, English, Spanish, German and even microbiology came together to learn about the history of the book from its inception through the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and into the early 1800s when the manufacturing of books became almost entirely mechanized.

“The overall structure of the course involved spending about half of our time in the classroom engaging in discussions on topics ranging from the evolution of bookbinding to ways that books can be used other than reading,” described Rose McCandles, a freshman who took the class. “The other half of our class time was spent in the Special Collections Reading Room in Thompson Library, looking at and exploring the implications of rare books that form part of the university's collection. The course involved more reading and critical thinking than writing or projects. Professor Brewer wanted to encourage us to think widely about the different topics we studied and felt that discussion was the best way to engage students and explore a wide range of ideas.”

Brewer collaborated early on with Eric Johnson, a curator of the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection, to determine that the final project would be a student-led exhibition. In order for this to work, students would have to delve into the reserves of the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and perform serious research. As a treat, the students would be granted permission to include actual artifacts from the library in their exhibits, including the rare books normally kept under lock and key in the basement vault of Thompson. Had they wished, students could have presented materials as coveted as the first edition of Don Quixote, the Rare Books collection currently possesses—a book that recently went up for auction at six million dollars.

Rare books justify their existence by being read and used continuously, Johnson says. “This is not a warehouse, not a museum,” continues Brewer, “it’s a teaching collection, so we need to get the material into the students’ hands. We want the books to be used because that’s a way of creating new ways to think about books and gain new knowledge and because this is a public collection.”

In preparation for the exhibit, Clint Morrison and Madeline Price, both of whom are graduate students in English, set up a Google Drive to establish a collaborative writing environment for the student exhibitors to share their work, provide feedback and build a sense of community for the project. It was through this very modern, very digital process that the theme of their exhibit came to be: The Book as Body—a theme that each student could interpret for themselves. “Our theme for the event grew from our challenging these assertions; as a class, we were very much engaged with how physical demands were placed on the reader/human body by printed objects through every part of the book's lifetime. Likewise, we began thinking about how books themselves carry a certain sense of ‘body’ with them throughout their production, use, and afterlives,” said Morrison.

On a certain level, “a book seems like it would be rather unlike a body,” says Brewer. “Books don’t breathe, books don’t sleep; books don’t die in quite the same way.” However, books do have these close connections to our bodies and are, and likely will remain to be, thought about in bodily terms, as almost living, breathing artifacts. For instance, the old book smell so closely associated with aged manuscripts often comes from the decaying of the binding, which, when it was not made of leather, was sometimes made with thinly sliced wood. As tanned leather ages, it emits a very specific fragrance that most readers have probably smelled at some point in their lives. Of course, the scent of decaying leather is not the only smell that wafts from these deeply saturated pages. These books marinate in a variety of perfumes, most notably, but more infrequently, the sour odor of ammonia. For instance, urine was sometimes sprinkled on pages, such as books or letters, that were being shipped out of countries where there was an outbreak of the Black Plague, as it was thought to halt the spread of the disease. Scholars sometimes use smell as a way to classify texts, and to trace historical events such as the spread of the plague.

Some students interpreted the Book as Body theme in terms of reader/object proximity: the materials from which books are created have a close relationship with the body. An obvious example is the binding of the books, which, in early printing, was often made of leather. A less obvious example of is the pages themselves, which were often made of pulped linen rags. These rags came from civilians who, when their clothing became too tattered, would sell their shirts and undergarments to a ragpickers. The ragpickers would then sell their wares to paper mills who would, in turn, break the rags down into fibers to produce paper. So, Shakespeare’s plays are essentially printed on someone’s old shirt. Linen-based paper tends to be softer, able to fold without creasing, and more durable than the wood-pulp paper that is commonly used today. Wood-pulp is acidic so the paper degrades quickly. As a result, some of the books from the 1500s are actually in better shape than the paperbacks mass-printed in the 1970s.

“We spent several weeks looking over materials from the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection, deciding which books to use in our personal exhibits,” says student Rose McCandles. “We also wrote all of our labels and worked on deciding how to organize our tables and mini-exhibits to make a comprehensive experience for our audience. As was the norm in our class, we often gave advice and constructive criticism to our peers, helping each other to make our tables better.”

On December 12, 2017, Professor Brewer’s students presented their final projects or ‘cases’ to an enthusiastic crowd of eighty-six students, staff and faculty members from across campus. “On the day of the event, we all set up our cases based on recommendations made by the instructors and our collaborators,” Morrison says. “We organized the cases in a manner that we felt best presented the non-linear narrative we wanted to tell with the exhibit.”

One student chose to focus on the tactile qualities of these centuries-old books. “[He] was really interested in how books could be treated in this very intimate, almost lover-like way,” Brewer says. One artifact was a seventeenth-century prayer book with a plain cloth cover, but the spine was lined with velvet. The nap of the velvet had been worn down due to the frequent opening, shutting and handling of the book. The student also showcased a late-medieval manuscript that depicted the image of a saint, but the image had been blurred because the owner of the book, out of deep religious devotion, had kissed the watercolors until they bled. “These objects kind of bear the traces of their very close intimate bodily use from years ago. And [this student] was interested in pursuing our emotional attachments to books, the way books get integrated into our daily lives, sometimes in these really quite intimate ways. They aren’t just these things kind of held at arm’s length, repositories of texts and such,” Brewer says.

“I chose to focus on examples of ownership showed in rare books, ranging from signing one's name in a book to using a book as a diary,” says McCandles. “I took this idea of ownership and formed it into my personal theme of the book as family member, taking each book and its different form of ownership and comparing it to the ways we express love for our families and friends.”

Cathy Ryan, a senior lecturer in the Department of English, attended the event: “At Ohio State, I have seldom seen students so knowledgeable and engaged with books. We adapt to the world around us and strive to develop English courses that are responsive to what we see and hear. I found the partnership between students and faculty, curators and rare books and manuscripts to be wholesome and erudite. [This] event…ultimately provides testimony to how the teaching of English, when conceived and done well, may be transformative.”

Want to learn more?

  • Enroll in Professor Brewer’s autumn 2018 class, which will function as a modern counterpoint to this course. 
  • Students and faculty are encouraged to consider incorporating the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection holdings into their teaching and learning. From Babylonian cuneiform tablets and illuminated medieval manuscripts to modern literary archives and vernacular photography, these collections extend across a variety of temporal, linguistic, generic and material format boundaries. RBML is a perfect hands-on learning laboratory for undergraduate education and graduate study.

By Michaela-Corning Myers and Avery Samuels