The BookTraces Project

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the BookTraces project and its founder, Andrew Stauffer. Stauffer articulates many of my own beliefs about books as embodied objects that bear social and historical traces. His description of books as “haunt[ed]” (337) seems especially apt: the term discourages us from regarding books as static objects and instead compels us to conceive of them as multi-layered artifacts that are inhabited by the impressions and experiences of previous users and the socio-historical circumstances in which they lived. Present-day readers of these texts are therefore engaged in a lively exchange with the past.

The following passage in Stauffer’s article, “The Nineteenth-Century Archive in the Digital Age” resonates with me in particular:

“The nineteenth-century book called forth many, many kinds of interaction, between texts and their readers, between books and other objects, between human bodies and other human bodies. We tend to think of the history of reading as centered in the consumption of verbal texts; but I want to encourage us to go beyond ‘texts’ as linguistic forms and to think about texts as something closer to textiles, woven creations of material and semantic content: that is, as an historical record that is already incarnated, each body bearing traces of its many social interactions and its long journey into our hands” (336).

Stauffer’s suggestion that we look “beyond ‘texts’ as linguistic forms” is especially appealing. As a panel discussant at McGill University’s Art History/Communication Studies Conference in April of 2013, I broached this notion by considering derelict items I scavenged from a former landfill site in Brooklyn as objects of neglect that capture the wordless experience of people and life unfolding outside of conventional discourses and written histories. I “read” these objects not merely as a tangible means of resuscitating memory but also as texts in their own right that possess the ability to communicate some of their meaning or to generate new kinds of meaning through the very process of material decay (though I am not advocating decay in the instance of the BookTraces project!). Thus, by expanding our definition of “textuality” to include nonverbal objects (such as the book-as-object/book-as-artifact) we can potentially veer our scholarship away from dominant discourses and explore new modes of meaning. The material aspect of books—including “marginalia, inscriptions, photos…and many other pieces of unique historical data”—captures an unmediated look at everyday, lived experience at specific points in history.