Reviving the Classics Through the Study of Print Culture

[Editor’s Note: the photos on this page are of select texts displayed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto]

Shakespeare Collection, First Print Edition

One of the reasons why I became an English Lit major was to study ‘classical’ ‘literature’ and to write academically and creatively.  Over the course of my B.A., I read several texts one might consider classical, the rest made up of texts I had never heard of.  I was humbled, one might say, and found out that my so-called elitism was unwelcome, especially in the classroom (besides, who was I to be elitist?). A text is a text.  It is worthy of study if it holds potential meaning.  This is what literature majors do – dig for meaning, discuss, write (and write some more).  It is, in some ways, an indulgent degree for a writer – part of the reason why literature, and the humanities in general, are criticized for not providing ‘hard’ skills [editor’s note: Hard skills? Writing extensively and then editing your own posts is a hard skill.  If not an exhausting skill].

Why then do we study literature?  More so, why do literary works remain on a pedestal in our culture?  I was asked both of these questions in my first year of English Literature.  My most apropos answer was perhaps because we must be critical of these works and this criticism matters.  What is enticing about studying literature is that you can be critical.  You can discuss, debate, and evaluate.  You can opinionate, or desecrate.  This even (or especially?) applies to some of the literary giants, including Shakespeare, Milton, etc.  You can desecrate the cult of these authors, if you want, and the cult of the novel.  Regardless, studying literature disrupts social standards.  Bring a little literary theory in, and you really can disrupt the elitist apple cart.  Go ahead.  Still, we can no longer be as wild about Shakespeare or consider him a genius anymore in light of the historical research that question his authorial legitimacy (Can you hear Marlowe snickering?).  Overall, after studying literature for an extended period, the words of works I once adored no longer had their silver-lining; however, this was a good thing, though.  Criticism sheds an important light onto works deemed ‘elite.’  Nothing escapes its origins.  The king who was once a beggar still carries this designation even under his crown.  Shakespeare was often impoverished.  He was a dramatist at a time when drama was still on its hind legs in England.  He was a working man for a particular public: the English theatre-goer, often uneducated and common.  Theatre was the medium of the working class, who used the stage much as we use television.  Simple entertainment.  His life was far removed from that wildly romantic 90s film, Shakespeare in Love:

Why then study literature, I ask again?  The answer is not “to get a good job.” Why in our age, when students have so many options, do we have a degree devoted to reading literary greats and writing about them?  I have found myself asking this question in a class of mine, Public Texts I, and will return to this question in a moment.  Let me digress something first.  In Public Texts I, we are currently studying the history of the book, including the many transformations it has undergone over the course of the last millennium.  We have delved into early print culture and what is quite fascinating about this period is how early printers were so damned for what they did.  Johann Fust, the partner of Johann Gutenberg, and his printing press was viewed as a magician  and his printing press was considered the work of magic by the public at the time (a dark magic at that.  Hence, the Fust – Dr. Faust connection. Marlowe snickers again).  These printers struggled against censorship laws imposed on them by certain institutions, which limited what they could print to mere pamphlets and news items, as well as appropriated Church documents.  The printing of the Gutenberg Bible was a significant step taken against censorship.  After all, the Gutenberg Bible made the very words of God available to the average peasant (always a dangerous thing).  Thus, the Church no longer could hold as much sway and power over the commoners – its most valuable audience.

Ben Jonson Collection, First Print Edition

The Gutenberg Bible is still considered an emblem of a revolutionary period.  It is a Bible, like the ones you can buy at Chapters for cheap.  The fact that the Gutenberg Bible was a product of a very important advancement in human communication, the printing press, is what makes it so significant.  The printing press represented the democratization of knowledge As printing presses popped up throughout Europe, information was more readily available through newspapers, pamphlets, and books. Print culture developed in Europe and books became symbols of progress, especially in regards to education.  By the eighteenth century – the century of the novel – most people owned books, even though not all could read them.  Literacy was still a social issue, but it was improving.  Industrialization in the nineteenth century dissuaded readers and many commoners became factory workers.  Generations would be put to work as Western society became modernized.

Writers were the freaks. The publishing industry has been a beast, but as the nineteenth century was coming to a close, writers faced competition and capitalist politics.  Many would sink.  The few who swam survive on bookstore shelves today.  This may be why we call these books ‘literature.’  Their value superseded harsh politics at the time.  Currently,in Public Texts I, we are learning of some of these politics.  For instance, women writers have always been given a shorter stick.  At the turn of the century, with the advent of feminism, women writers could finally write confidently under their own name.  With citizenship came recognition within literary circles.  Writing literature, including poetry, would become an engine for gaining civil rights.  The twentieth century saw many revolutions and these revolutions were chronicled by writers and poets so that we can relate to them today.

Islamic Book of Songs

The literariness of a text is defined by its ability to be read and related to by a universal readership.  It speaks of the human condition – what it means to be human – and distances itself from works that are merely published for capital (an important reason in many instances, but one of which irks me some).  Literature can withstand the test of time.  Perhaps this is why so many of those infuriating ‘old’ authors are a mainstay in Western literary studies: Milton, Shakespeare, Pope, and such American greats as Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Browning (and many more).  Authors become cults because they are cultural references; centerpieces in readers’ collective consciousness.  Reading their books forms memories.  They often comfort.  Something about their works hit a nerve.  Extending from these authors there are so many others who derive and develop from them, rebel against them, or separate entirely from them.

Italian Medieval Bible, 13th c.

Enough of my romanticizing.  The point I am trying to make is that print culture teaches students of literature that the classics became classics through their relationship with publics then and now.  Aside from shaping public readership (that cult of the book thing) and being marketable as hell, what are considered classic books shape private lives.  I found this in the class I teach.  In the first class, I asked students their favourite work of literature.  There were a variety of answers, but Catcher in the Rye was a popular one, accounting for nearly 10 students out of 25.  The story of a lost youth in a lost generation is something students seem to connect with, even 50 years after Salinger’s novel became a hit.  Classics are revived through reading them.  There really is no divide between pop lit and classic lit, except for time.  The study of print culture teaches that this test of time can also be a test of fate.

Literature is generational. The photos on this post show works that have withstood the test of time.  Rare books in print hold a paradox: their content is familiar, their form is ancient and symbolic of the metaphysical purposes behind the production of them.  I suppose it is not surprising that religious and other such spiritual texts drove scribes to spend countless hours producing adorned manuscripts.  Printers reproduced these texts.  Their very mode of reproduction, the printing press, was a tedious and, often, back-breaking job.  Printing presses were crucial to the advant of capitalism in Europe and the driving purpose of reproducing texts was to make capital.  Still, as one can see in the photos, the texts are still symbolic of something fascinating.   The pages are old, but the content contained and, in some ways, worshipped by the library and the public.  Regardless of what we deem as literature, it is the idea that literary works contain a history that provides a scope into who were are, a scope into the human condition, that seems to matter.  Nothing can communicate this better than a book.

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DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

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