(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books? / Paratexts (Post 3/4)

Guest post by Kristina Hartfiel & Tobias Winnerling, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Lehrstuhl für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. This series of guest posts is inspired the workshop „Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher“ – „About (Making) Use of Books“ (cf. https://bookhistorynetwork.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/conference-book-use-the-practices-of-using-books-in-the-early-modern-period-dusseldorf-november-14-15-2014/)

(Making) Use of Books: Counting, Measuring, Weighing, Reading. What Use is ‘Materiality’ in Examining Early Modern Books?

Paratexts (Post 3/4) – links to Posts 1 & 2

It seems self-evident to first look into the books themselves if we are searching for the traces of early modern book use. Paratexts are interesting in this case because, as Genette observes, they are

“what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold […]; it is an ‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text)”.[1]

Paratexts extending beyond the basic text of a work are particularly suited to be analysed when we are dealing with the use(s) of books, because they were intended to be instruments of use to the reader. This means prefaces, prologues, dedications, (printed) marginalia, copper plates, frontispieces and all such things.

The worth of prefaces for instance was already known to the authors of the largest early modern encyclopedia, Johann Heinrich Zedler’s “Grosses Vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschafften und Künste” (Grand Exhaustive Universal Dictionary of all Sciences and Arts). This encyclopedia was printed in 68 volumes in the middle of the eighteenth century. “A preface is a useful thing in a book, and those scholars are judging well who say, if you are wanting to read a book; you will have to read its preface and register first of all.”[2] Prefaces, prologues and introductions seem to communicate foremost the author’s intentions and information about the addressed audience. They are often used to justify claims about the addressed audience. Yet the question remains whether this kind of use of a book intended by the author is congruent with its actual use: Can we really extrapolate the actual recipients from the audience addressed in such paratexts? This is not the question about the ‘implied reader’ of literary theory but first of all a pragmatic questioning of the assumption that paratexts may be accepted at face value. We argue that indeed careful examination is necessary to determine whether paratexts might not have been incorporated into a book for other reasons than those stated in the paratexts themselves. At our workshop “Vom (Be-)Nutzen der Bücher” (Düsseldorf 11/2014)[3] this topic was discussed by Kristina Hartfiel using the example of early modern history books. On their title pages and in their prefaces, these books directly addressed the ‘studying youth’. But were they really used as textbooks at school or in private educational contexts? Or was ‘studying youth’ just an advertising slogan? Fittingly, the “Universal-Lexicon” already noted: “In the prologues we are served the dishes, as it were, and being shown what it is that we shall enjoy. The article itself is to wake the hunger within us.”[4]

Paratexts should be seen as platforms which reach out beyond the text and serve to negotiate diverging interests. Such interests may derive from authors, editors, printers, publishers, and last but not least the readers as users. They can serve to retrace a spectrum of practices put to work in using a book. Daniel Bellingradt highlighted in his commentary that intertextual connections hint at the actual uses of books. If they appear, this implies readers who consciously navigated increasingly complex text-paratext-arrangements to get to what they wanted to know. However, it is important to keep in mind that this kind of reading is first and foremost a very learned practice of using books. Books may well address an audience that differs from the one constructed in their paratexts. A learned prologue might serve to exculpate the author in the circle of his peers for writing a text with popular appeal and thus be directed at an audience not likely to read the book at all. Thus we consider the approach formulated by Daniel Bellingradt at the workshop slightly problematic. To him, the practice of compiling would be the early modern book’s defining mode of use, in turn making it necessary for research to make visible the “interdependent, inter-medial and inter-textual dimensions of the early modern media agglomeration”.[5] We agree completely with the second part of the argument which we quoted directly. We must admit, however, that we are sceptical towards the first. Most of the time, paratexts may not even be directly assigned to an author. Not only were prefaces routinely written by other people than the bulk of a book, they could also be seen as a chore demanded by publishers: “It is well known how many learned men have complained about the audacity with which prefaces for a piece of work everyone knows to be a miserable effort already are being demanded from them.”[6] What is more, printed paratexts with organizing functions such as registers, indices, marginalia and glosses for the most part go unsigned and thus are potentially the work of other hands than that of the author of the book’s main text. And many (other) people may have had a hand in organising the final shape of a book. This holds true especially for early modern works: these books were made by many hands.

If we want to analyse paratexts, text, context, and paratext have to be differentiated first of all. After that it is important not to neglect the text as compared to the paratexts. Text and paratext are symbiotic and highly interrelated. They can only be analysed properly by paying due attention to both of them. Moreover, it should be avoided to privilege one kind of paratext over others. Any kind of paratext can provide answers to the questions concerning the implied readers of texts. To be true, what really can be extracted this way are not actual uses, but the reading practices those implied readers were supposed to use when reading the book in question. If we know which practices of reading should by intention of its makers be used on the book in question, this provides clues to possible readers (which were able to put these practices to use). Flemming Schock analysed the working and reading practices of miscellany authors of the 17th century in this vein. He showed that printed paratexts such as registers, marginalia and sub headings can provide information about the reading practices they intended their audience to deploy, in this case fast, selective, and extensive reading. Another of the reading practices they intended to be used on their works, which he called “Auslesen des Wissenswerten”, ”picking out what’s worth to know”, points to a mirror-inverted relationship between authors and users. The authors had to deploy a time-consuming compilatory reading practice in order to produce their texts, and exactly this practice of reading these same texts were to spare their readers who could just pick out what they wanted to know.

In a similar way, Paula Niemeier analysed the structure of works belonging to the so-called household literature. They contain printed paratextual elements such as thematic schemata, tables of content, indices, and registers, which facilitated their use. Niemeier suggested that these paratexts were included by authors and/or publishers to adapt the books to the needs of their users. In a diachronic comparison, Niemeier was able to show a trend towards an increasing complexity of text-paratext-arrangements within the household literature genre. This increase was paralleled by the tendency to a growing differentiation and specialisation regarding the content presented in these works.

Is it possible to make the text reveal its actual readers, users or consumers if the analysis of paratextuality is coupled with that of textuality? After such an analysis a book presents itself to us, as Foucault termed it, as “a knot within a net” and a “game of associations”[7] as should have become apparent by now. To follow these links it will be useful to uncover possible – if in most cases likely still theoretical – insights into the users of books and other stakeholders involved in practices connected with books. From the point of view of a research strategy, the study of paratexts is a method to enlarge the field, to tie in new traces to be followed. On the one hand this will be useful if the object itself remains ‘mute’ without mining paratextuality. On the other hand, such an approach necessarily presupposes that there is enough paratextual material to be mined.

[1]             Gérard Genette, Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation. Cambridge 2001, pp. 1 – 2. [Author’s emphasis.]

[2]             Anon., Vorrede, Vorbericht, Lat. Praefatio, in: Universal-Lexicon, Vol. 50 (Vo–Vrh), Halle/Leipzig 1746 [URL: www.zedler-lexicon.de], col. 1073 – 1077; col. 1073. [Own translation].

[3]             For more information on individual presentations see the conference minutes by Nancy Erasmus.

[4]             Anon.: Vorrede, Vorbericht, Lat. Praefatio, in: Universal-Lexicon, Vol. 50 (Vo–Vrh), Halle/Leipzig 1746 [URL: www.zedler-lexicon.de], col. 1073–1077; col. 1075. [Own translation].

[5]             Daniel Bellingradt, Periodische Zeitung und akzidentielle Flugpublizistik. Zu den intertextuellen, interdependenten und intermedialen Momenten des frühneuzeitlichen Medienverbundes, in: Volker Bauer/ Holger Böning (Eds.): Die Entstehung des Zeitungswesens im 17. Jahrhundert. Ein neues Medium und seine Folgen für das Kommunikationssystem der Frühen Neuzeit (Presse und Geschichte – Neue Beiträge 52), Bremen 2011, 57 – 78, p. 57. [Own translation].

[6]             Anon., Vorrede, Vorbericht, Lat. Praefatio, in: Universal-Lexicon, Vol. 50 (Vo–Vrh), Halle/Leipzig 1746 [URL: www.zedler-lexicon.de], col. 1073 – 1077; col. 1074. [Own translation].

[7]             Michel Foucault, Archäologie des Wissens, 6th ed., Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1994, p. 36. [Own translation].


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