Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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The Nature of the Page

Reviewed by Meaghan Pachay

Joshua Calhoun, The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), ISBN 978-0812251890, 288 pp., $55.00/£45.00.

[1] Endeavoring to bring together two fields of literary scholarship ‘not typically linked,’ book history and the environmental humanities, in The Nature of the Page Joshua Calhoun directs our attention to the oft-overlooked medium of the media we study: the page itself (p. 3). He traces handmade paper from its roots to its replacement by machine-produced tree pulp in the late 1800s. In doing so, he seeks to broaden our understanding of what the text is – not just at the moment it is held in human hands, but in its past lives as seed, plant, fiber, rag, and toward its future in an era of climate change. In the process, Calhoun aims not just to change our understanding of Renaissance texts but also to expand our field of view in order to incorporate the ecosystemic relationship that has always underpinned the material instantiations of human ideas. The Nature of the Page offers a timely extension of D.F. McKenzie’s ‘sociology of texts,’ instead envisioning an ‘ecology of texts’ that accounts for the natural matter that makes books, and arguing that accepting natural resources as a given rather than a variable impoverishes our understanding of the literature we study and distorts the histories we tell about Renaissance books.

[2] The Nature of the Page is guided by three overarching questions: ‘(1) How has scarcity of nonhuman matter altered human communication? (2) How have humans creatively imagined or reimagined the textual possibilities available to them in a given ecosystem? (3) How has human communication been altered by the corruptibility of the nonhuman matter used to make texts?’ (p. x). To answer these questions, Calhoun divides his five chapters into two sections: ‘Legible Ecologies,’ which examines how Renaissance writers, readers, and printers made use of local ecologies in producing books, and ‘Illegible Ecologies,’ which extends an ecological reading to account for aspects “that were less visible to the average sixteenth and seventeenth-century book user and that are nearly invisible to us now” (p. 14). Chapter 1 narrates a history of paper in reverse chronological order, largely through a close reading of Matthias Koops’s Historical Account of the Substances which have been used to Describe Events, and Convey Ideas (1800), a book printed on paper made from straw. In this chapter, Calhoun develops his argument regarding the role of scarcity in the history of books, showing how local ecosystems drove how paper was made, from the exploitation of natural resources to the labor of slaves. The second chapter, born out of a 2011 PMLA article, picks up a reading of Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Book’ begun in the Introduction to offer a methodology for reading plant fibers and their rhetorical effects in the varied colors and qualities of paper used in printing English vernacular Bibles. This methodology suggests the ‘poetics of paper’ is one of corruptibility as words are recorded on slowly decaying substrates (p. 47).

[3] Together, the two chapters that make up ‘Legible Ecologies’ sketch out a broader ecology of the text as visible to Renaissance readers and writers; the last three chapters turn to less apparent aspects of book ecology. Chapter 3 uses one of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s First Folios as a case study to consider how to read imperfections, be they a stain on a page of 2 Henry IV or any of the forms of correction used by Renaissance printers. Reading both metaphorically and materially, Calhoun argues that interpreting a page of text as mixed media deepens our understanding of how book users recorded and revised history and challenges standard book historical wisdom about the pursuit of the ideal copy. Moving from stains to sizing, Chapter 4 demonstrates the continued significance of animals in paper books through the role of gelatin sizing in book survival. In this chapter, Calhoun makes his sharpest intervention into book historical practice: he argues that current scholarly data on book use and survival is skewed because it fails to account for differential survival rates in sized and unsized paper. Recognizing the animals present on pages made from plant fibers will produce more reliable data for future work. Following this thread on book survival and book loss, Calhoun concludes The Nature of the Page by turning to the future: Using Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Of the Book’ and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he considers the ethics of the archive and natural resource consumption in the midst of climate change by examining how Renaissance writers and Renaissance scholars imagine book biodeterioration.

[4] As the above may suggest, The Nature of the Page casts a wide net. To make an argument about how we study English Renaissance books, Calhoun draws together Vaughan and Shakespeare and Donne with everything from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac to articles in mSystems and Frontiers in Microbiology. In the process, he makes a convincing case for widening the scope of book historical work to consider a text’s ecology, what it was before it was a book and what it will become after. He argues that when we study the lives of Renaissance books, we also study the lives of the plants, animals and minerals made to carry human ideas. Notwithstanding the forestalling of decay created by our archives, the fragility and corruptibility of Renaissance handmade paper must force us to reckon with the ecosystemic relationship between human immaterial idea and nonhuman material book. If at times the boundary between what is ‘legible’ and ‘illegible’ both then and now is blurred, it is in the service of a methodological intervention that both opens new territory for our scholarship and reminds us of the precarity of the work we can do. For as Calhoun reminds us, ‘there is little chance that Shakespeare’s Sonnets will endure in this paper format for another four hundred years. The truth is more poetic’ (p. 144).

Ohio State University, October 2020

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