ENGL758B - Literary Criticism and Theory: Book 2.0: The History of the Book and the Future of Reading
0101 - Kari Kraus

When Shakespeare's Polonius, acting as spy for King Claudius, encounters an aggrieved Hamlet pacing about with an open book, he asks the prince what he is reading.  Hamlet's evasive response--"words, words, words"--intentionally misconstrues the question, preferring to treat it as an inquiry about the material properties of the book rather than an expression of curiosity regarding its meaning or subject matter.  Taking a cue from this exchange, this course situates the physicality or "thingness" of books--those "poor bits of rag-paper [printed] with black ink," as Thomas Carlyle once described them--within book culture more broadly.  Our approach will be expansive as we survey antecedents of the book ranging from the clay tablets of the ancient Near East to the papyrus scrolls of antiquity to the manuscript and printed codices of the middle ages and early modern era.  This historical backdrop will set the stage for a speculative consideration of the future of the book, including developments in areas such as electronic paper, wireless reading devices and mobile e-readers, distributed storytelling, DIY publishing experiments, and locative narratives and place-based authoring.  Over the course of the semester we'll test the elasticity of our mental models by looking at extreme examples of reading and writing technologies, from edible books to self-destructing poems to a “Printing Dress” that displays tweets.  We will read primary texts by William Blake, Johanna Drucker, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, and the Chinese artist Xu Bing, as well as secondary texts by a variety of influential scholars.  The seminar will also have a hands-on component: we’ll write on clay, mock-up some designs on the future of the book, and experiment with paper-based and/or wearable electronic “books.” Finally, we'll supplement our cultural and technological investigations with forays into the cognitive science of reading, delving into how our eyes scan and our brains process a page or screen of text.