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History of the Book, or an ongoing conversation


This post will be long. Its content will consist on a series of reflections about history of the book. It will grow on a weekly basis as the semester advances and, in the end, it will be just a part of an ongoing conversation that I started having with other members of LAIC and (most importantly) with myself in my first year of graduate school. Most of what I will write here informs the way I am currently working with the archive of my dissertation -which deals with books, as one could expect. I refuse to think of this post as the theoretical backbone of my dissertation. Methodological would be a better word. Nonetheless, I would rather think about it as a workshop (of sorts) of ideas I am still toying with, of ideas that I am still not convinced by, of ideas that I do not know how to make sense of. Ultimately, as Ramon Llull himself, I am not a great believer in the separation between theory and practice... and if theory must exist, it should never be left to theorists.

C. García-Alix, Las mil y una noches User's inscription sheet in BSAL, MSS. 2311

I should start by the beginning. In my case, something began the first time I read McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts during my first year of graduate school, as it had a profound impact in my research. First of all, as everyone in the classroom when we discussed the book, I was in awe of the clever dismantlement of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s idea of “intentional fallacy,” particularly since such dismantlement is purely based on the tools of bibliography. It converted me to the cause of reading books with a certain amount of suspicion, as they are technological artifacts. Mistakes can be made in the printing as it is often the case when humans operate machines. Furthermore, interests are at stake as somebody has to pay for an edition, somebody has to approve it, somebody has to decide which images are printed, etc. The book (McKenzie’s) struck me as based on a very Derridean trick. Actually, the defining Derridean trick. The author reads a text and uses a tiny detail contained in it in order to turn the meaning upside down and show that the text means the contrary of what had been thought all along, the contrary of what it seems to be leading us to believe. Reading the second part more closely this (my oh my) third time I have gone through the pages of Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, I find that the book is more Derridean than I thought the first time. I find myself spotting more and more moments of genuine mistrust of books. Maybe it is only me and I am having a psychotic episode caused by my dissertation, but McKenzie seems to be pointing all the time to the fact that books are unstable and tricky, they are determined by actions that are lost to our eyes, they phagocyte culture (what is lost on the passage from orality to writing? what happens to precious but alas perishable documents when books do not protect them?) and, in the end, they remain impossible to grasp as a whole. Not even McKenzie’s fantasy of an all-encompassing library where only the criteria of copyright would serve the purpose of gathering books. Then, what about pirate books? What about non-venal editions? What about censored books that never came to be distributed? Nothing exists that is not on books, yet books are printed and spread all over the world faster than our ability to get a hold of them. I finish McKenzie with a profound feeling of discomfort. Books are a curse and studying them only contributes to the plague.

All the people, so many people

It occurs to me that thinking about books should automatically imply thinking about people relating to books. McKenzie wanted to make the making of the book count as critics often take the ideas texts carry as if they were produced in a void. Books have an impact -positive or negative- on a community of people who define themselves by owning them, getting rid of them, copying them, traveling in order to be able to see them. Books do not only carry text, they are not only made in order to be read. Sometimes the text is inscrutable, yet the book is still important (as they are for collectors for instance). Sometimes readers are not readers as they pick books as amulets and carry them because of an immaterial allure the book possesses rather than because of what is written inside the book. Could Philip II read his own copy of the Art of Ramon Llull? Probably not. This did not keep him from carrying a copy of Llull’s Ars brevis with him everywhere during his final years of retirement at El Escorial. Almost the same way, Irnerio in Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore made sculptures of books that he made a point of never reading. People relating to books are not necessarily readers, they are users. Furthermore, makers of books are various and diverse and not all of them produce written text. All of them possess some form of agency in the making of an object that only happens to be a book. So, if books are not only texts and if books spread like a plague as technological artifacts/debris, maybe we should study them as articulating points between people. After this time reading McKenzie, Chartier, and Deleuze, I arrive to the conclusion that we have to pay attention to people involved in producing and consuming books. They appear in the front page, in the back, in the prologue, in the pages dedicated to the aprobación y tasa; they appear in users’ cards libraries often keep, they appear in records of transactions about books. This is not to say that what books say doesn’t matter, but we have being reading inside them and not around them for too long.

So I come to exhibit A. Working on the portability of books of Ramon Llull one finds that many people possessed, read, worked, copied, or had some kind of commerce with those books. Critics have often everyone around books by Ramon Llull a Lullist, which is a bit disingenuous. Not every reader of a book follows the spiritual path of its author taking its content as a model for reaching knowledge. Some readers of books are casual readers, some just want to possess the book as collectors but have little interest in its content. To separate different kinds of people around books in order to state that diffusion and tradition can be more powerful than the origin of an intellectual movement is at the core of my dissertation project, thus when I found a list of readers of a beautiful manuscript of Ramon Llull at the library of the Universidad de Salamanca I had to resist the urge to shove it somewhere inside my dissertation. The list is composed of four scholars from 1980 until 2002 (last time the manuscript had been checked until I stumbled upon it Spring 2015). Two art historians (one from Spain, one from Mexico), one  theologian (from Catalunya), and one philosopher (from Spain). Two of them (Mexican art historian and Catalan theologian) have as main focus of their research Lullism, the others do not. The element they have in common is the book. This may not seem like a promising starting point, but it leads to further questions. Why did they went to Salamanca? Did they go on purpose to read that manuscript? Did they read it with casual curiosity or did they work sustainedly on it? Can the manuscript help understanding the printed works of the authors that do not have Llull as a main focus in their research? All these questions are difficult to answer on just a list with four names, but the point is that considering the users of the book raises all these questions. Answering them could be every bit as important as actually reading the book.

After working with the manuscript, I did something that a researcher should never do: I altered the evidence I was working with. I did not resist the temptation of taking my pencil and adding my name to the list. So now it is: Josep Perarnau i Espelt, Felipe Pereda, Linda Báez Rubí, Cirilio Flórez Miguel, and Noel Blanco Mourelle.


It is impossible to know whether or not the crime precedes the legislation in a pos-Derridian world according to Cornelia Vismann (or Arlette Farge, or Ben Kafka, or even Jacques Derrida himself) because to her law equals records equals writing. Writing is a legal operation, any other everyday meaning for the act of writing is secondary to the legal primary quality of writing. If there is no outside of the text, then there is no text outside the law. Two conclusions could be drawn from this: 1) formal qualities of writing in documentation convey meaning; 2) when confronted with the infinite quality archive in which any written document is legal to some extent, an individual would be necessarily overwhelmed by this archive. The second conclusion is the one I most interested in because it provides an angle to tackle the ominous overtones of the comments I wrote last week. In other words, if books spread all over the world faster than we can get a hold of them, cannot an even worse case be made for documents? Existing tales about how too many books literally crush a reader lying on his bed (Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude) or about how paper-based documentation is a curse (Melville, Kafka, etc. – Vismann goes through many of these) may only give strength to our feeling that humanity is fighting not to drown on a sea of paper. Knowing that our grasp of the existing documentation is finite and that the ability of documentation to spread, to reproduce itself, to be forged, to hide its intentions in small type paragraphs before the bottom line is maybe a better -somewhat less apocalyptic- starting point than we may think. As critical readers, we are not defenseless against the constitutive elements of documentation, nor against its proliferation.

Having accepted that any kind of writing is, in its more genetically pure and basic form, legal, we may want to relate to writing differently. We may want to accept that we live in a world of documents, but that those documents are most of the time vulnerable to the circumstances of time and to their own specificity that may make them literally impossible to file once they have become useless. Even if we look at the screen of a computer with despair and it the power of big corporations as omnipotent since they know everything about us, it is also true that systems of filing become obsolete way faster than they used to and that those corporations are more susceptible to economic crises than they used to. Our despair is partially due to our focus in the contemporary. Such focus has deprived us of a necessary historic perspective, particularly when it comes to filing systems that are so new. So, whomever wants to cry panopticon, may want to think about that twice. When reading accounts such as Arlette Farge’s Le goût de l’archive, there is a sense of the overwhelming excess of the documentation, but also a hint of something else. This something else is a conclusion that one can only reach while working on material culture: documents are naturally defenselessness. When a new filing system is invented, normally after a big economic or political turnover, documents are left scattered and obsolete. The meanings they conveyed (property, crime, privilege, punishment, etc.) are most of the times left behind in history. Yet, to the eyes of a historian they can be the key to provide some understanding about the past and to ask questions about our present. These used documents are at times fragmentary and they are dependent on filing systems unknown to use. One may think we are drowning in documentation, this is only if accept the wrong premise that the present of data shall be eternal. It is not (cf. Svetlana Boym, retrofuturism, and the endless commodification of primitive forms of digital culture). Documents of all kinds lay literally around (libraries, archival facilities, the internet) hoping for somebody who may read them and actualize them.

Hugh and the magician

Every book is a work in progress, particularly if said book is a book about a curriculum, a path of study. Therefore, it is fitting that Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon has an appendix of revisions to the text that work as improvements, further admonition to students, and opinions on new trends. We tend to think about a book as a stable object, but a book could be the result of endless revisions. Petrarch revised the manuscripts of his Rerum vulgarum fragmenta and Triomphi while literally dying in his bed and considered his opus unfinished and Ramon Llull wrote so many versions of his Art that during the last years of his life he abandoned it as an impossible pursuit. Sometimes what we read as a book with an established text is like the flat surface of a deep and turbulent sea. We can pursue this argument and upon it elaborate a hypothesis: if the Didascalion is a manual, it is so inasmuch it expresses a norm about what to learn and how to learn it, thus the Didascalicon is the result of a position in front of several controversies. In other words, what we see today as a treatise on reading and learning was a book that was trying to tie up a situation of diversity. Competing ways of reading biblical scripture and commenting it were given an order and hierarchy, different curricula and appearing disciplines were given order and legitimacy. In a context of diverging religious order and institutional concurrency, Hugh of Saint Victor threw his hat in order to establishing a coherent curriculum. Its success is partially due to the fact that he proposed not only a model of education but as a result a model of student that integrates a basic set of tools in order to go forward on his path of discovery: “Through knowledge, man’s immortal mind is capable of containing all things, visible and invisible.” It would be a mistake to read the Didascalicon as less of an invitation to a spiritual quest for wisdom, simply because it rules over important intellectual debates.

Revisions are not there only to expand the text in a positive way, but also to admonish certain students against ideas or trends of knowledge. The inclusion of an appendix against magic in the Didascalicon proved that there is a concern about the learning of magic at the time to the extent that Hugh of Saint Victor feels compelled to address the question. It proves also that there may have been a diversity of view on the subject matter or at least a diversity of practices diverging from a tacitly established norm. Magic must have been tempting to students and Hugh felt the necessity of ruling against it. Interestingly enough, he does not rule against magic in moral or religious terms. As Gerson and Rabelais regarding the Art of Llull and Erasmus against the artes memoriae, Hugh considers magic non an intrinsically sinful pursuit per se, but sinful inasmuch it makes the student deviate from its path towards wisdom. Yet, Hugh shows quite an unsettling knowledge not only about the canonical texts about magic, but about all its disciplinary structure. Hugh does not address at all the question about which side of orthodoxy did magic fell into. This may hide an ambivalence in relation to the definition of magic. Magic was nor a discipline, neither an academic discourse and it existed in a world outside the quadrivium and other auxiliary disciplines. Yet, magic was a practice that happened in the periphery of academia. It was academics who practiced it and even though it did not enter the space of teaching, it entered their sociability and occupied private spaces where at least some academic rules were still applicable. Maybe as magic did not quite fit in academia and was not acceptable, it could not fit in the book and could only exist as an admonition in the form of an appendix.

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  • Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.
  • Chartier, Roger, and Lydia G. Cochrane. The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind. Oxford: Polity, 2014. Print.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59 (1992): 3-7.
  • Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967. Print.
  • Farge, Arlette. Le goût de l’archive. Paris: Seuil, 1989. Print.
  • Hugh of Saint Victor, and Jerome Taylor. The Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor. A Medieval Guide to the Arts. New York: Columbia UP, 1961. Print.
  • Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text. A Commentary of Hugh’s Didascalicon. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1993. Print.
  • Kafka, Ben. The Demon of Writing. Powers and Failures of Paperwork. New York: Zone Books, 2012. Print.
  • McKenzie, Donald. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
  • Tratados varios. MS 2311. Salamanca. Biblioteca de la Universidad de Salamanca. Manuscript.
  • Vismann, Cornelia, and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Files. Law and Media Technology. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2008. Print.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « History of the Book, or an ongoing conversation », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on September 17, 2015. Full URL for this article

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