HDCC 208Y: Book Lab: The History of the Book and the Future of Reading

August 31, 2020
16 weeks


0111 Prince Frederick Hall   View map


Sophomore Course

“Everything in the world exists in order to end in a book.”

—Stéphane Mallarmé

What is a book? Metaphors abound: A book is magic, a lighthouse, a narcotic, a garden, a compass, a mirror, a confection. A book is a “frigate . . . to take us lands away” (Emily Dickenson) and “a dream that you hold in your hands” (Neil Gaiman). Books are also physical artifacts, bearing the imprint of time and use: the crisp white pages of a novel become yellow and brittle with age and the backlit glow of a Kindle eventually dims and dies. Books have been revered in one milieu and reviled in another; shelved and cared for in libraries or banned and burned by government authorities.

This course surveys the history of the book and asks you, the student, to speculate about and design its future. We’ll consider antecedents of the book ranging from the clay tablets of the ancient Near East to the papyrus scrolls of antiquity to the manuscript and printed codices of the middle ages and early modern era.  We’ll look at developments in areas such as ebooks and mobile e-readers, augmented reality, and pop-up books that combine paper, electronics, and smart materials. Over the course of the semester, we’ll encounter extreme examples of reading and writing technologies, from a self-destructing poem to a text encoded in DNA to secret messages revealed by the application of water, heat, or light.

The class will also have a strong hands-on component: we’ll read books, hack them, and even eat them (edible books have a venerable history). We’ll write on clay, print broadsides using traditional wooden type, mock-up some designs on the future of the book, and embed electronic components in print books. We’ll also experiment with plenty of unusual materials, including disappearing inks, thermochromic pigments, and hydrochromic paint.