Convener Michelle Wallis discusses the first session of Lent Term:
We opened the term here at ‘Things’ with a double billing from Birkbeck, in the form of Dr Luisa Calè and Dr Adam Smyth speaking on the theme of ‘Altered Things’. You can read tweets from the seminar here, and access the podcast here.
The session started with a bang when Dr Smyth opened his paper on the cutting of books in early modern England with a picture of Hunter S. Thompson aiming a gun at his typewriter. This image engaged with Dr Smyth’s challenge to us to re-think acts we might consider ones of destruction or even desecration, as benign, creative or even reverent. Though concerned primarily with the unique textual ‘things’ produced by the Little Gidding religious community in the 1630s by cutting up printed bibles and re-assembling individual letters, words and phrases to produce new versions of the Gospels, Dr Smyth’s paper made connections with Dada-ist poetry and Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Tree Of Codes, created by the selective cutting of another novel, encouraging us to think in new ways about early modern reading practices and the creation through cutting of such unusual ‘things.’
Dr Luisa Calè followed up with a paper on reading, collecting and extra-illustrating. She introduced us to practices I am sure were new to many listeners, as she discussed the extra-illustration of printed literary works, in this case Romantic-era editions of Shakespeare. Once again, printed works were cut up and presented anew, but in this case, the entire pages of a work, presented in a window cut in the page of an album, would be illustrated with collected print images, just as the Little Gidding bibles were illustrated with cut-out prints. The process is described in Thomas Frognall Dibden’s wonderfully bizarre Bibliomania or Book Madness, published in 1811, which frames book-love pathologically. These amazing objects, many of which reside in the private collections of the elite women who created them, exist at a fascinating intersection of reading and collecting and, like the Little Gidding works, of destruction and creation, as the avid bibliophiles destroyed other books in their quest to harvest images for their own creations.