"The Nature of the Page"

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Joshua Calhoun. The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England. Material Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020. Hardcover, xii, 212p. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-812-25189-0.

 Part of the University of Pennsylvania's Material Texts series, Dr. Joshua Calhoun's The Nature of the Page is a confluence of book history, environmental humanities, and preservation studies. This study brings crucial questions to bear on how we write about the history of books, how scholars conduct research today, and how and why libraries and archives engage in the work of preservation and access. Calhoun currently works as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is also affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Delaware. His research interests include Early Modern Drama and Poetry, Ecobibliography, Ecopoetics, and Paleography (to name a few), and he has published broadly in the intersecting fields of Book History and Environmental Humanities over the past decade. This is his first monograph, with another, tentatively titled The Deaths of Books, in the works.

The Nature of the Page begins with the premise that the objects in library and archives collections are fundamentally made up of deceased organic matter, a fact which Calhoun notes often fades into the background in scholarly work and catalog records, if it is acknowledged at all. Focusing on late medieval and early modern British examples, Calhoun describes the moment he first realized that holding these early modern books and papers meant he was holding dead plants and animals as “dizzying.” It is indeed a startling thought. Accordingly, this book focuses on the creation and use of paper through the lens of non-human materials such as the flax used for papermaking, the oak gall used for ink, and the hides, hooves and bones used for sizing; how their limited nature as resources has affected human means of communication; and how such communication has been affected by their inevitable deterioration. He situates his work clearly within the existing literature, discussing his work in the context of the contributions of Robert Darnton, Leslie Howsam, D.F. McKenzie, Tim Barrett, and John Bidwell. 

Divided into five sections, Calhoun first examines the plant-based matter of early paper and its ecological history. He then turns to how the presence of plant matter and its natural degradation as a part of the texts we read fundamentally changes our experience in reading such texts. In doing so, he further challenges the reader to expand their own definition of how to read a text to include the growth, use, labor, and economies behind the page. In chapter three, he considers the intersection of ink with paper—in particular, the role of blots; what we mean by a "perfect" copy; and how to read so-called mistakes or unintended inclusions within paper. Chapter four is perhaps the most exciting chapter in this already absorbing work. Here Calhoun deftly discusses a subject long neglected among book historians: sizing. He posits that early modern paper is itself a plant-animal hybrid (mostly made up of flax, after which it is transformed into a writable surface using animal-based glue), explores the sizing process, and discusses how new attention to sizing might change long-held assumptions about a book or paper's use and survival. Finally, chapter five considers the environments in which the book and paper objects we study and preserve were created, how they are now preserved, and what this means for the future of the environment, these institutions, and book history as a discipline.

Calhoun thoroughly unpacks the historically limited nature of nonhuman resources in the creation and dissemination of paper, and the inevitable limitations as related to their ongoing preservation. A major point he makes throughout is that poets such as Shakespeare, Donne, and their contemporaries, writing in the early modern period, did not expect their work to survive four or five hundred years into the future. One of the many roles of poets from time immemorial has been to remind us of our own mortality, and one of the objects they most often relied on to construct metaphors of mortality was the paper in front of them. Librarians and archivists in particular are acutely aware that everything has its season, engaged as we often are in minute acts of preservation such as rehousing, internal climate monitoring, disaster preparedness planning, carefully arranging book weights, or instructing someone on handling. “Nothing gold can stay,”[1] and so perhaps because we take a long view and pour so much time and energy into the preservation of fragile objects in our care, we are prone to forget that ultimately these efforts will like “golden lads and girls...come to dust.”[2] This is not to suggest that we ought to expose collections to the elements, or not engage in preservation efforts. Rather, Calhoun’s argument is consistent with current scholarship that views “imperfect” and previously damaged books and manuscripts as some of the most interesting and worthy of study, and which questions whether or not there is such a thing as an “ideal copy.”

The Nature of the Page also suggests that we consider carefully how much and what kind of preservation is necessary. In light of the carbon footprint generated by institutions seeking to maintain an artificial, ideal climate for their collections in a world that is increasingly warm and unpredictable, where does our responsibility to paper end and the environment begin? While reading this text, I thought often of the many issues raised at the 2019 RBMS Conference in Baltimore, which focused on sustainability and environmental impact in relation to archives and rare book libraries. A recurring theme from that conference was the intersection of climate change, capitalism, and white supremacy. While Calhoun’s thoughts on the extended cost of paper are mostly focused on the limited resources that went into the physical product, and the limited energy which we now use in service of its care, he does take the time to remind us of the different kinds of human labor that made them, which all of us engaged in archival work inherit and witness in our work every day. This book doesn’t provide firm answers for how librarians and archivists can become better stewards of our internal and external environments—that is beyond its scope. It does point us to a methodology for thinking through some of the changes a changing climate will inevitably work on our collections and our communities; and the history of how and why some paper, ink, and leather have survived while others have not.

Calhoun is honest about the limitations of his work and notes the multiplicity of directions for future research. His subject is clearly confined to an early modern context (although expertly brought into focus in the present), and the majority of the book addresses printed books. I would have appreciated a more equal focus on writing paper and manuscripts, although he does briefly discuss writing paper and manuscript annotations in chapters three and four. I deeply appreciate the generous and collaborative nature of his research, both in his acknowledgements section and throughout the text. He cites published scholars in book history, environmental studies, and conservation literature, as well as unpublished sources such as conversations and practice with master papermakers. In the interest of his subject (bringing transparency to the ecosystem of paper production and survival), he is transparent about the factors that enabled him to do this research and write the text; noting fellowships, workshops, and discussions with specific colleagues who assisted and helped develop these ideas. He even goes so far as to specifically name many of my own colleagues at the Folger Shakespeare Library and thank them for their help, a rare acknowledgement of the quiet but crucial part many librarians and archivists play in the production of new research.

Overall, it is a marvelous, well-written, accessible, and timely book that combines detailed scholarly inquiry in the histories of books and printing with broad environmental concerns. The University of Pennsylvania’s series on Material Texts and the resulting scholarly community that has emerged over the past thirty years has consistently pushed the interdisciplinarity of Book History as a field to new heights, and this work is a welcome addition. This is a text that fills important gaps in several places: our understanding of the role a largely invisible component of early modern paper, sizing, might play in how books survived and collections were formed (or not); what questions and considerations we ought to take into account about our collections, their original purposes, and the purposes they might serve in the future as related to our institutional environmental impact; and how we more broadly as overlapping professions and scholars with a wide variety of interests can think about damage to supposedly “imperfect” materials. A must-read for librarians, curators, scholars of ecologies and book history, students, and anyone else who wants to expand the ways they think about paper and rare collections. — Elizabeth DeBold, Folger Shakespeare Library


[1] From “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.

[2] From Cymbeline by William Shakespeare.