Kidnapped by Books

Susan Barron

Book artist Susan Barron showing pages from "Song," one of the books in her "Labyrinth of Time" installation.

"A book is like a burr. It's got to challenge you and make you think and keep making you think. Books have been my best friend. I was an only child and I was kidnapped by books."

The speaker, book artist Susan Barron, was not alone. She was surrounded by people kidnapped by books. Twenty-five of them. And she was surrounded by books--on witchcraft and the Inquisition.

The History of the Book Seminar, without appearing in any course catalog, has taken on a life of its own since its beginnings in Spring 1993. One recent seminar with best-selling author Lisa Jardine drew 60. Typically, sessions attract faculty and students from a number of departments--physics, landscape architecture, history and sociology of science, history, romance languages, English of course, "anyone who comes," says seminar driving-force Peter Stallybrass, professor of English. More than 450 people receive seminar news via listserves.

The seminar is a cooperative, cross-disciplinary effort of the Rare Book Department of the library and English. Rebecca Bushnell of English ran the seminar while Stallybrass was on leave, and now Ralph Rosen, of classical studies, and Joe Farrell, of both classical studies and comparative literature, also help out.

It ran on less than a shoestring until this semester when both the library and English put up small amounts of money, which help pay small honorariums for some of the prestigious guests.

"Once you apply for money, it's a lot more work," says Stallybrass. But then he gloats over his speakers list. "People from Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford--you just can't do it in that hand-to-mouth way."

Stallybrass has speakers lined up for the next year and a half. "I'm swamped," he grouses good-naturedly.

What began as an effort to unite graduate students with the library and as an effort to see how grad students and academic scholars go about their research, has become an inquiry into the "material culture of the things we work on--books, computers, film."

The seminar meets Monday afternoons at 5 p.m. in the Lea Room, one of the Special Collections libraries on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center.

The Henry Charles Lea Library of the Inquisition and Church History, with its ancient books behind glass cases, oriental rug and leather-padded armchairs, like the whole sixth floor, is an anomaly in the concrete, modern library. With the Rare Book Room and the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, the sixth floor is a kind of reliquary or shrine for writings that have survived the rigors of time.

Here, in what looks like a movie-set version of a wealthy gentleman's home library, Barron came on Jan. 20 to talk about her artwork, which is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until March 2. In a darkened gallery, lit cases of varying heights display her books.

Barron designed both the display cases and installation.

"I think you've raised the standard of showing the book to another level," said Dan Rose, a professor of landscape architecture and regional planning, who still comes to campus for some of the seminars even though he is on leave this semester.

Barron explained her installation decisions: "You want things to move and dance. You try to vary the way the end papers go. You don't want to put everything on the same level, so the room has some shape and some glow and some movement--a watery idea. And you light it so it's sacred."

The sanctification of books struck a responsive chord in Director of Special Collections Michael Ryan, who rules over the sacred sixth floor and who emceed the seminar. "You've created "little zones of intimacy," he said of her museum installation.

"You have to set your own little frame," Barron answered.

Little is the operative word here for some of Barron's work. The first slide she had displayed, glowing on a screen in the darkened Lea Room, was of a complex page image, at least two feet by one foot on the screen. Someone wanted to know how big the original was. It's the size of "a commemorative postage stamp," said

Barron. A murmur of surprise rose in the room. Later in the talk, Barron said: "My definition of a book seems to be shrinking."

The postage stamp-sized page was collaged from old-book materials.

"I never tear apart a book," said Barron. "I always wait for someone else to do it." The comment met with the crowd's approval. "So do we," Ryan said.

Meeting in the sixth floor shrine to ancient texts was a strategic decision.

"It's a neutral space: It's not in a particular department," says Stallybrass. "Also, it's a way to introduce people to the sixth floor of the library."

Stallybrass became interested in the history of the book because of his Penn colleagues, particularly Margreta De Grazia, Stuart Curran, Maureen Quilligan, Bushnell--all in English; Joan DeJean and Kevin Brownlee in Romance languages; and Farrell. He also credits an extraordinary group of grad students, including Juliet Fleming who is now at Cambridge, and Jeff Masten at Harvard.

The seminar provides numerous opportunities for "rethinking your discipline," Stallybrass says. He likes the serendipitous connections, mentioning a talk by Michael Malone, a scriptwriter whose soap opera experience gave Stallybrass a new understanding of a Shakespeare manuscript in the Furness Library.

In the soap opera world, Malone had to write future scripts taking into account that actors were contracted to work different schedules and were often not on the set at the same time. Shakespeare, Stallybrass said, had similar problems.

Because Elizabethan repertory companies had a specific number of actors, "they had to write with a certain number of parts in mind," Stallybrass said. For actors who played more than one role, they had to allow time for costume and character changes. Like today's screenplays, Penn's Shakespeare manuscript was a collaborative effort of seven different authors. They wrote dialog with no characters attached to it, a technique that allowed them to reassign lines.

The technical logistics of our time made the technical logistics of Shakespeare's time make sense.

Other seminar insights came from considering the new texts like CDs and videos.

"A book is transportable, it's light weight, you can get to different parts of it rapidly," said Stallybrass. You can't do that in a movie reel, which is a mechanized scroll. Imagine looking for phone numbers in a scroll. But you can do that with laser technology, which enables you to find things quickly. "We have created in film what we have in the book," Stallybrass said.

The spatial organization of the book came up in Barron's work when the conversation switched to the concept of time--the time it takes Barron to create a collage, the time it takes for a book to degrade so much that it becomes fodder for her art, her concern that time doesn't degrade her books, time as content and time as collage. One of the 11 books in her installation at the art museum, "The Labyrinths of Time," is a sequentially disordered book of months.

"Time moves around and has that same feel to me--time and physical layering and memory ... out of any sequential order," Barron said. She didn't mind if people flipped through a book out of order. "I can't control the viewer."

A grad student in physics chimed in. "Constructing the book is like a meta collage," Judith Bush said. Barron agreed.

Stallybrass marvels at the directions the seminar has taken him. For example, there's the large conference, "Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production," held at Harvard two years ago. He organized it with Nancy Vickers, recently elected president of Bryn Mawr college who had been a visiting professor here at Penn, and with former grad student Jeff Masten. They subsequently published the proceedings, also called "Language Machines: Technologies of Literary and Cultural Production" (Routledge, 1977). The book's introduction states: "It is, no doubt, partly the emergence of new forms of cultural technology (film, TV, video cassettes, computers, CDs, the Web) that helps us to see the specificities and peculiarities of books and of reading techniques."

After four years, Stallybrass is still excited about the ideas that keep coming out of the History of the Book Seminar: "Something fairly small has taken off within and outside the university."

Originally published on February 11, 1997