The Nature of the Page
Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England
by Joshua Calhoun
An innovative study of books and reading that focuses on papermaking in the Renaissance
In The Nature of the Page, Joshua Calhoun tells the story of handmade paper in Renaissance England and beyond. For most of the history of printing, paper was made primarily from recycled rags, so this is a story about using old clothes to tell new stories, about plants used to make clothes, and about plants that frustrated papermakers' best attempts to replace scarce natural resources with abundant ones. Because plants, like humans, are susceptible to the ravages of time, it is also a story of corruption and the hope that we can preserve the things we love from decay.
Combining environmental and bibliographical research with deft literary analysis, Calhoun reveals how much we have left to discover in familiar texts. He describes the transformation of plant material into a sheet of paper, details how ecological availability or scarcity influenced literary output in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and examines the impact of the various colors and qualities of paper on early modern reading practices. Through a discussion of sizing—the mixture used to coat the surface of paper so that ink would not blot into its fibers—he reveals a surprising textual interaction between animals and readers. He shows how we might read an indistinct stain on the page of an early modern book to better understand the mixed media surfaces on which readers, writers, and printers recorded and revised history. Lastly, Calhoun considers how early modern writers imagined paper decay and how modern scholars grapple with biodeterioration today.
Exploring the poetic interplay between human ideas and the plant, animal, and mineral forms through which they are mediated, The Nature of the Page prompts readers to reconsider the role of the natural world in everything from old books to new smartphones.
Introduction. Toward an Ecology of Texts 1
Part I. Legible Ecologies
Chapter 1. Substances Used to Convey Ideas: Ship Sails, Cellulose, and Spinning Wheels
Chapter 2. The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper
Part II. Indistinct Ecologies
Chapter 3. How to Read a Blot: Historiography and Renaissance Ecologies of Inscriptive Error
Chapter 4. Sizing Matters: Annotating Animals in Renaissance England
Chapter 5. This Book, as Long Lived as the Elements: Climate Control, Biodeterioration, and the Poetics of Decay
Remainders. Reading and Seeing Textual Ecology
"Calhoun’s insightful and frequently surprising ecopoetic research considers how the making—and unmaking—of paper in the early modern period affects the language and metaphors authors employed to express their ideas. The Nature of the Page creates a vital nerve plexus that communicates with premodern literary studies, book history and ecocriticism. It fills a long dusty scholarly lacuna that extends D.F. McKenzie’s influential conception of a 'sociology of texts' into the nonhuman realm, what Calhoun calls an 'ecology of texts...' The Nature of the Page will change how readers see paper. No longer only black and white, its hybrid plant-animal-human ecologies will encourage book historians, environmental humanists, and premodern literary scholars to collaborate to better understand how the medium of historical record gives rise to the very ideas it records."—ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
"Joshua Calhoun’s book on paper, The Nature of the Page is gracefully, feelingly written; it is also impressively learned."—SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
"An elegantly produced book, this is a must read for those interested in book history and archival science…the narrative he shares is a significant one, and discovering the truth about the past will continue to be vital to learning about our present, and our possible futures. In showing us precisely how ‘the story of paper is as much an environmental story as it is a bibliographical story’, The Nature of the Page provides an important service to those interested in the history of books and their use."—Textual Cultures
"The Nature of the Page achieves its intended end of compelling us to think about paper—indeed to think about it in multiple ways—as a medium with a message, as an environmental micro-history, as literary inspiration. It is a well-researched study, and what Calhoun refers to as his 'case histories' effectively illustrate this book’s working premises. Its wit delightfully mirrors the seventeenth-century literature it considers; unusual juxtapositions unsettle comfortable assumptions and demand that we take seriously the ecology of reading."—Seventeenth Century News
"Clever and truly interesting, The Nature of the Page admirably draws our attention down to earth and to the plants and animals that live there. It will be welcomed by scholars in both ecocriticism and the material history of the book."—Ken Hiltner, University of California, Santa Barbara
"The Nature of the Page offers an innovative and refreshing approach to the study of books and reading by focusing on paper as a ubiquitous yet underappreciated material-revealing it to be a rich source of evidence for cultural history and literary interpretation. Readers will never look at paper quite the same way again."—Alan Galey, University of Toronto