What is a Book? From the Clay Tablet to the Kindle (Gen Ed 1090)





What is the nature of the object that has been the focus of your education since you began to read--and at the core of Western culture since its inception-- and why is it important to understand and appreciate its presence before your eyes even if it's all but transparent?


Aesthetics & Culture icon with text

David Stern

You have spent much of your life since kindergarten (and perhaps earlier) reading books; and you will spend much of your time at Harvard continuing to read them. But do you even know what a “book” is? Is it merely a conveyor, a platform, for presenting a text? Can a book have a use other than being read? Does the nature of the material artifact inscribed with words shape or influence the way you understand their meaning? Do people read a scroll differently than they do a book with pages? Or a digital text on a screen? Why does the physical book persist in the digital age? To answer these questions, we will study the many different material forms in which texts have been preserved—from tablets to e-books—and the technologies that have enabled their creation.  We will also explore every possible aspect of the object we know as a “book,” from the title page to the index, and from the layout of a page to the use of illustrations and decorations—and what each of these features of the book can tell us about its historical role, how readers have used the book, and what it has meant to them.   Books we will look at will range from the Bible to Vesalius, from Homer to Harold and His Purple Crayon. We will make regular use of the manuscripts and rare printed books in Houghton Library, even if remotely.  If necessary, simulated contact with books as material objects will be the focus of the course.  The capstone project of the course will be the creation of a (short) book by each student and an accompanying paper explaining its place in the history of the book in the West.

Register for Gen Ed 1090