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The History of the Book

Want to learn how to pound papyrus and assemble a printing press? Join Jamie Horrocks’ book history class!

Illustration of an early printing press in action.

Students grab freshly harvested papyrus stalks and begin splitting them. They soak the papyrus in water, dry it, press it, and lay it out. Hours of work for a single piece of paper. While this scene seems to come right out of the history books, it’s something you might witness on any given day in English 340: Book and Publishing History. Studying the history of the book teaches students facts; crafting the materials necessary to make a book leaves them with experiences that teach the value of old and new forms of book creation. Associate Professor Jamie Horrocks’ (Victorian Studies) discusses how she teaches this experience-based class.

Students flock to Horrocks’ class because of its hands-on nature. Horrocks designed the class this way because she believes that experiences give students a better connection to the material. “It gives students a really concrete example of the material affordances of that particular format.”

Consider the papyrus scrolls that students make. If she only cared about facts and history, Horrocks would simply tell students that “papyrus scrolls were written on horizontally.” But taking the time to press the papyrus themselves, they get to see that there is a natural grain to the fibers of papyrus that lends itself to writing horizontally with a reed brush so the ink doesn’t bleed.

Students can also recognize that these pages have to be linked together to create scrolls and that doing so horizontally makes the most sense given the flexibility of papyrus when rolled a certain way. By experimenting with the materials, students come to understand the principles behind why books were produced in very specific ways. This is something they couldn’t have learned by reading about papyrus in a textbook.

Moving into the era of the printing press, Horrocks teaches her students a whole new set of confusing vocabulary related to the mechanics of the press. Rather than have them memorize these facts, she takes them to a room with a tabletop replica Gutenberg press, dumps out a box of type pieces and other necessary implements, and tells them to figure out how to set the type. The students then learn how the machine works and why each piece is important to making the whole press function properly. The knowledge they have clicks into place with their lived experiences, giving them a richer understanding of the concepts taught.

Horrocks said that these experiences ground the principles of book history in reality. “The principles behind the methodology become clear.” Students in this class also make paper from pulp, grind the ingredients for ink, cut feathers into quills, and practice calligraphy writing. Spending the time to prepare everything and then hand copy a single book (working together as a class to each take a few pages) takes an entire semester’s worth of work. This process helps students appreciate the importance of the historical texts we do have and recognize the significance of the printing press.

These meaningful experiences also teach the student that learning requires failure. Horrocks explained that students try to create something and fail sometimes, but that is essential for them to learn that risk taking is a part of learning. Not all research has a neat and tidy conclusion. Learning is the process of trying something new to see if it will work. An understanding of how to recover from failure prepares Horrocks’ students to succeed in the working world.

Horrocks hopes that 10 years from now her former students, who likely won’t remember the texts they read or the theory they discussed, will remember why papyrus is so good for certain kinds of writing because they’ve actually written on it. When teachers utilize these types of experiences, Horrocks said, “No matter what you’re studying, whether in a Shakespeare class, an Old English class, a Victorian class, it doesn’t matter the content because the skills are transferable.”

Register for English 340 this fall to experience bringing a book to life!