From Career Paths to Communications Circuits: Vocation and Book History

As an English teacher, I’m always attuned to language and its implications. The language of vocation tends to be a language of opportunity: to grow and flourish, to move forward, to make life-defining choices. Correspondingly, the imagery is of doors opening, of young people silhouetted against a sun-drenched landscape, their backs to us as they move forward into the radiant future. Both this language and imagery signal individualism, which is also present in my college’s exhortation to students to pursue their own “unique career path.” All this is certainly sensible: we want students to have a path to follow when they leave us, and to thrive and find fulfilment in the wider world. But in my interactions with students about the broad issue of vocational discernment, I find myself emphasizing the language not of opportunity but of constraint. Counterintuitive as it may seem, being explicit about how life choices are constrained by responsibilities to others and by factors out of our control can offer students a more robust framework for thinking about how to move forward.

Since the Lutheran mission of my college is vestigial, and since my students rarely have much formation in the concept of vocation, I don’t usually raise questions about discernment directly in the classroom. I do, however, teach a course on book history—the material lives of texts—that I have found a useful place to engage students in reflection about how they want their education and their lives to matter.

Because the course doubles as a methods course in the major, students typically take it halfway through their college career. The shiny novelty of undergraduate life has worn off, but the future remains indefinite. My students often feel both daunted and cautiously optimistic about what’s to come, and they express uncertainty about how to make the best use of their remaining time as students.

Armed Services Editions of popular literature in Rare Books and Special Collections Division for Sept.-Oct. 2015 LCM. Photo by Shawn Miller.

From the beginning of the semester, I emphasize a key feature of book history that I think worth their notice: its preoccupation with the collisions between creativity and constraint, between imagination and its insertion into the material world. At the very first session, the director of our Special Collections assembles a host of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which almost every student has read in high school. They are invariably surprised to learn that Fitzgerald’s novel languished until it was reprinted during World War II after Fitzgerald’s death in a portable Armed Services Edition and gained an audience amongst soldiers. The soldiers brought their enthusiasm for the work back to the US, rekindling its sales and aiding its rise to the status of “classic.”

Leaf from the Aldine Greek Bible, 1518 A.D. In aedibus Aldi et Andrea Soceri, Venetiis; First complete Bible printed in Greek. Edited by Andreas Asolanus, father-in-law of Aldus. Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

The message is pragmatic: sometimes, genius needs good fortune and particular material conditions to flourish. This pragmatism, I find, suits the students, who are profoundly conscious that their “passion” has to find a place in a world where they will need to pay off student loans, find ways to fund unpaid internships, and try to articulate their oft-inchoate aims on their profiles scattered throughout the proliferating web of networking websites. A few weeks later, when we look at a sixteenth-century Greek Bible set in Greek type, I gently take us back to the theme of how creative passion and material constraints produce their own beauty. How much effort did it take, we consider, to design and cast the type and to compose, sheet by sheet, this folio volume? How many hours were spent by workers bent over their typecases, squinting at a manuscript text, assembling this work line by line? The book’s very existence testifies at once to the intellectual creativity that powered the Renaissance and the dignity of the hard labor that made it possible. Finding ways for students to think about both elements of vocation is a key aim for me in teaching this class.

Across the semester, several layers of assignments feed students’ attention to the interplay between the individual and the contexts that shape their work and choices. Several short exercises ask students to engage directly with some of the material constraints of book history: they read by candlelight, do some introductory palaeography, and copy a text line by line for half an hour (commenting on how sore their hands quickly become). When they reflect on what it’s like to read by candlelight, a few of them describe the experience as romantic and cozy; more are annoyed at having to move the flame around, tilting the pages to catch the light. Some of them highlight how much you would have to want to read—how important learning would have to be to you—to want to huddle over a flame with a book at the end of a long day. A more extended book-making workshop run by our conservator allows students to work through the stages of producing a book: they sew together the folded signatures, hammer the spine to round it, and glue the covers and endpapers together. Again, the emphasis is on how to negotiate between existing skills and aptitudes and what the occasion requires. Camaraderie develops as students who have never threaded a needle before work alongside classmates who have made some of their own clothing.

In asking students to reflect on these experiences, I return them to the question of how an individual aesthetic vision is necessarily modified by its encounter with the demands of material reality. At a conceptual level, this lesson is reiterated when we look at Robert Darnton’s famous 1982 essay, “What Is the History of Books?” Darnton’s mapping of this emergent discipline incorporates a well-known image of “the circuit of communication,” showing all the players that have a role in a work’s circulation—from obvious figures like the author and reader to less familiar ones like the bookbinder and even the entrepot (or port) keeper. The communication circuit, which loops around and highlights the interdependence of its elements, challenges ideas of linear development and individual accomplishment. Notably, it draws attention to the role of a relational process—communication—at the heart of intellectual and creative work.

Throughout the semester, I tread lightly as I raise these issues for students, but in asking them to interweave reflections on their own life with their knowledge of how book historians conceive their field, my goal is to help them think about the future as not a lonely journey along their “unique path” but rather a communal negotiation of a shared space. That vision is ultimately not so far afield from a formulation that will be familiar to many readers, Frederick Buechner’s suggestion that vocation is a matter of integrating one’s own “deep gladness” with “the world’s deep need.” Book history, in ways that I believe can be deeply meaningful for our students, explores the happy if constrained juxtaposition of creative pleasure and material necessity.

(I would be remiss if I did not point out, in conclusion, how my ability to teach this course depends on a rich and rewarding collaboration with our dedicated Special Collections staff.)

For further reading on book history and vocation, see Joanne E. Myers, “Encountering the Archive” in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies.

Joanne E. Myers is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where she teaches courses on 18th-century British literature and book history. Her recent publications include articles on the penal laws in 18th-century Britain and the role of conversion in Jane Barker’s fiction. From 2005-2007, she was a Lilly Fellow in the Humanities at Valparaiso University. For other posts by Joanne, click here.

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