Page by Page, an Interview with The Book History Expert
We are taking a look at the books themselves this week. Ultimate Library provides expert opinions on the subjects of books and on their merits as part of interior design. As a group of bibliophiles, we at Ultimate Library love books more than most and of course have quite a few in our homes, but there is so much history to the printed word even we don’t know it all.
Our expert this month takes a look at the books themselves, their pages, the way they are put together and the history behind them. Dennis Duncan is an author, lecturer at UCL and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society exploring book history. His recent book Index, A History of the looks at a part of the book most of us never think about, the index, giving us some of its most spectacular uses throughout history. We spoke to Dennis to find out more about his fascination with books and why he thinks the public are re-finding their love of physical books.
Both your book Book Parts and Index, A History of the look at history through a literary lens. What inspired you to write books on these particular topics?
I’ve been interested in the physicality of books for a long time. What’s it like to make a book? To set up the individual letters of type, to work a printing press, to stitch a binding… Along with some friends I own a little nineteenth-century cast-iron printing press. It lives in a shed just outside Oxford, and getting it there was backbreaking work – it is literally the heaviest thing I have lifted in my life! We use it to make poetry pamphlets and illustrated booklets. But the thing it reminds you is that all the seemingly invisible parts of a book – page numbers, title page, the choice of font, the type of paper… – are just as much a part of the book as the main text. So I wanted to write a history of these other bits: why they are there; when they emerged; who invented them.
What would you say is the most under-appreciated part of a book and why?
The page number! Page numbers make reading a communal activity. They allow us to look things up, to add an index, to do referencing (i.e. footnotes to tell future readers where you found something), or even just to tell other people “I think you’ll enjoy what’s on page 16…”. The interesting thing about page numbers is that they really weren’t useful until the printing press came along in the 1450s. Before that, when every book had to be copied out by hand, the monks doing the copying didn’t bother about making sure they kept to the same page as the original. You and I might have two copies of the same work – exactly the same words – but your page fifty might be completely different from my page fifty. The printing press brought about uniformity so that readers could be on the same page, so to speak.
As a lecturer at UCL, which topic brings out the most surprising responses from students?
Sometimes there’s a danger that students know how they’re supposed to respond to certain types of literature. If you ask a group how they respond to a text that is clearly tragic or deals with weighty themes, then usually – quite rightly – they will respond in a serious way. But the lesson can be a little po-faced, or feel like it’s running on rails. Things that are stranger, where it is hard to say whether someone is being funny or arch or not, can get students thinking in more individual ways because they’re unsure of what they should be saying. Emily Dickinson’s poetry is good for this. “Hope is the thing with feathers…” Wait, what?!
Physical books are regaining popularity, despite easy access to digital formats, why do you do think this is?
We do a lot more with books than simply read them. We display them, we give them to one another, we use them to prop things up… A book can signal something thoughtful (“I thought you might like this”), or it can signal expertise or membership of a certain community (I got a Sally Rooney tote bag when I bought her last novel!). And just think of how many people used their bookshelf as a Zoom backdrop during the pandemic. Your books can send a message to the world about who you are. Your eReader can’t do that!
What three books have inspired your love of literature and why?
The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino
This is a collection of fairy tales that Calvino wrote by laying a set of tarot cards out in a grid and trying to come up with stories for each column and each row, like writing a graphic novel where the pictures have already been done. The tales are very delicate – some of them work, some don’t – but the book as a whole says something very profound about what it is to make up stories, how much they come from ourselves, and how much we’re always repeating archetypes.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Stern
This is a novel from the 1760s but it has a sense of invention and fun that feels very modern. Tristram tells us his life story (starting on the first page with the excruciatingly awkward moment of his conception) but the joke is that he just can’t get to the point – he is constantly doubling back and interrupting himself. It manages to be both moving and silly, the trickiest pairing to pull off!
The Castafiore Emerald by Hergé
The Tintin stories are the first stories I remember reading with my Dad and I still read them often (and not just with my children). The Castafiore Emerald is the best one. Unusually for Tintin, it’s set entirely “at home” – at Captain Haddock’s manor house in Belgium. Instead of an adventure, then, this is a locked-room mystery à la Agatha Christie. It’s a joyous, colourful, early 60s masterpiece.
We want to thank Dennis once again for agreeing to be our expert of the month. As we work with books it is always great to find out more about their history and how important all the small things are. You can find Dennis’ book here and follow him on Twitter to see more of his thoughts on books, literature and history.