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The Book as a Reader's Experience: Personalized Books

Commonplace books were used to compile knowledge particularly in Early Modern Europe. They began as collections of sayings and grew into collections of thematic materials. In many cases they became scrapbooks filled with letters, quotes, recipes, formulas, notes, and other items.

According to Cormack and Mazzio (2005), a commonplace book

"A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context. While the commonplace book allowed readers to personalize their reading by making it useful, this process of textual engagement was also highly prescribed, "common" in the sense that it filtered one's reading through social norms that determined what was textually significant and what not."

During the 15th century, the creation of a zibaldone developed as a scholarly activity. This "hodgepodge" book was a small paper codex that contained author notes, poetry, prose, and sketches. The book might contain a mixture of technical and literary texts.

By the 17th century, commonplacing was taught to college students as a way to organize their student materials. At universities like Oxford and Harvard, students learned to select, condense, and organize useful information ideas.

In 1958, author Virginia Woolf wrote about her notebooks,

 "[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink." (Woolf, 1958, 25).

randolphA few commonplace books were published. Most were published after the death of the commonplacer.

Try It!
Explore Southey's Common Place Book. Notice the wide range of topics covered.

Although most weren't formally published, many authors and scholars viewed their notebooks as quasi-works. A number of well-known authors and scholars kept commonplace books. Explore some examples:

Commonplace books can provide interesting insights into the individual compilers. What were their interests, preferences, concerns, and organizational strategies?

Today, activities like blogging are viewed by some as a form of commonplacing.

Commonplacing provides an interesting way to think of the cycle of a book from author through to reader and back to author again.

Book Bindings & Embellishments

bindingIn the early history of printed books, printers often sold books without bindings. The binding selected reflected the status of the owner as well as their devotion to the book. For instance, individuals often decorated their Bible with embroidery.

Even after bindings were commonly placed on books, owners continued to embellish their books.

The image on the right shows an embroidered bookbinding from the 16th century.

While some book embellishments were done professionally, others were created by the individual owners depending on their skills and tastes.

Fore-Edge Painting

Fore-edge painting is a decoration painted on the edge of a book's pages. The fore-edge is not the spine, top, or bottom of the book. Instead, it's the outside edge of the book. Some artists hide their painting so it can only be viewed when spreading out or thumbing through a book.

As early as the 10th century, examples of fore-edge painting have been found. In the 16th century, Cesare Vecellio began painting the fore-edge of books for beautification. The Queen's Binders expanded the skill to include hidden images and a gilded edge giving the illusion that the painting would appear and disappear.

To explore some examples, go to the Boston Public Library.

The example below is titled Jerusalem Delivered and contains a gilted images with a painting when fanned out.

foreedge

Commemorative Books

After World War I, commemorative war books were produced. The People's War Book and Pictorial Atlas of the World includes official war reports, articles, war maps, charts and diagrams, and hundreds of illustrations. Published in 1920, readers were invited to add their own image to the "Roll of Honor" at the beginning of the book.

The image below shows the "Roll of Honor" where readers could enter their own information into The People's War Book and Pictorial Atlas of the World (1920).

roll of honor

Interactive Books

In many cases, authors invite readers into the world of their books.

In Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700, Cormack and Mazzio (2005) provide examples of the relationships between books and their users. In Albrecht Durer's The Art of Measurement (1525), paper fold-outs invite readers to place themselves in the illustration to understand how to draw a solid object and its shadow.

interactive

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