the copy — books as copies, containing copies (copy derived from other sources)
books as repositories/vessels

We’ll be devoting some time to stability/instability in the conception of what a book is. We’ll be particulary interested in compendia (catalogues, atlases, anthologies, commonplace books, index rerum), also extra-illustrated books, manuscript books. And we’ll be considering non-Western books, with a visit to Harvard-Yenching Library planned.

Studio activity will include papermaking, some book (physical or e) making, and some writing. Our collective writing (some assigned themes, some fieldtrip and other reports) will be compiled into a printed book).

Field trips will include Harvard-Yenching Library, the Houghton Library, and the Harvard Map Library (to consider the relationship of stand-alone maps to atlases, as well as new GIS/spatial data tools). Other fieldtrips/workshops include a papermaking experience (Boston Paper Collective), and (hopefully) the High-Low Tech research group at MIT.

Please plan (arrange your life) so that you can participate in Montserrat’s New York Bus Trip on Saturday, 31 March.

One-page response papers are required for every field-trip (and/or guest presentation), due the following week. Other (short) writing exercises will be assigned from time to time. We will be generating content for a multiform publication, to be developed later in the semester: for several material manifestations (paper, e, etc).

Attendance is mandatory: the class meets once per week, so one absence is equivalent to two normal (three-hour) meetings. Moreover, experts in the field are making their time, expertise, collections available to us: we owe them full attention.

Friday 27 January

Introductions, followed by expedition (by MBTA and the T from North Station to Park Street Station) to the Boston Athenaeum, to see
Artists’ Books: Books by Artists
including includes works by Russell Maret, Laura Davidson, Ryoko Adachi, Stephen Dupont, Harriet Bart, Xu Bing, Iliazd, and more than two dozen others. We will also be shown the Preservation department.

The course title includes both forms and cultures of the book. By cultures is meant the communities of users, readers, creators, producers, curators, librarians, in and from which books derive their meaning and significance. The Boston Athenaeum is one important instance of that culture.

Take notes. Think about what you’ve seen and heard, and select one item upon which to focus a brief (but thoughtful) essay. Write that essay. The exhibit page at the Boston Athenaeum website provides a link to the its digital collections / artists books, that may be a useful aid to memory.

Xu Bing, Square Calligraphy Classroom (1994) described here.

readings, to be discussed on Friday 3 February —

  1. Juliet Fleming, Afterword. Huntington Library Quarterly 73:3 (September 2010): 543-552
  2. chapters 1 and 2 (Dynamics of the Book and Incunables on Clay) in Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book.
  3. Introduction and Chapter I (Communities of Readers) in Roger Chartier, The Order of Books (Stanford UP, 1992).

Not required (at this time) but of some interest, in part for appearance of the expression codex nostalgia, is An interview with Professor Robert Darnton, conducted by Rhys Tranter, 5 December 2011, here.

Friday 3 February

Discussion of readings, and examination of a variety of books — from perspective of uses and mis-uses.

We visited The Peabody Essex Museum to see
Unbound: Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM,
to which we were kindly given an item-by-item explanation by curator Sid Berger, who is director of the library. A description of that exhibit can be found here.

The materials were organized under three headings — Rarely Seen, Powerful Stories, and Delight the Eye. One item in the first group was a folio of Sukiya ezu, or Japanese pop-up teahouses, created in the early 19th century. The catalogue entry for the item ascribes it to Tansai Nobutatsu, and describes it thus: Two wooden cases, with mounted labels and hand-calligraphed titles on exteriors, lists of contents mounted inside of wooden tops. Cases house 90 folding plates with elaborate pop-up and cut-out features creating measured three-dimensional deplictions of tea houses.

In the section Delight the Eye, we saw progressive proofs for a chromolithograph portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven created in 1870 by Louis Prang & Co., an important Boston-based lithography company. This series of progressives show the elaborate and highly intensive printing process that begins with a shadowy outline and, after overprinting 25 colors, ends with a dimensional, fully realized portrait.

McVey’s favorite item was A Catalogue of the different specimens of cloth collected in the three voyages of Captain Cook, to the Southern hemisphere: with a particular account of the manner of the manufacturing the same in the various islands of the South Seas: partly extracted from Mr. Anderson and Reinhold Forster's Observations, and the verbal account of some of the most knowing of the navigators : with some anecdotes that happened to them among the natives (London : Now properly arraigned and printed for Alexander Shaw, London, 1787). A description (of another copy of the item) can be found on the Clements Library blog Chronicles, here.

Friday 10 February

We will be heading to the Boston Paper Collective in Charlestown, for an experience making paper from rag pulp, conducted by Melinda Cross. Information here.

In preparation, take the virtual tour of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum — through page F (Papermaking moves to the United States) — here.


linen fiber (3); cotton fiber (4); poplar fiber (5); and spruce fiber (6), from Manufacture of Paper (International Correspondence Schools), Scranton: International Textbook Company, 1902, here.

Later that day is the first of three programs in the mid-career retrospective of the films of David Gatten — David Gatten’s Secret Histories, at the Harvard Film Archive, February 10-12

David Gatten’s films have a lot to do with books. Some will remember Gatten’s screening of several films at Montserrat, nearly two years ago. Participants are expected to view at least one of the three programs, which are detailed at the HFA website here. The programs start 7:00pm on Friday and Saturday, and 4:30pm on Sunday. Tickets go on sale 45 minutes prior to screening.


cover image a glimpse of What the Water Said to David Gatten

Genevieve Yue, David Gatten’s Sympathetic Ink (exhibition catalogue essay, Wexner Center for the Arts), 2011 here (pdf under 2011).

Michael Sicinski, The Systematically Incomplete Dialectical Process, or, Articulations of Structural Mythopoeia in the Para-Classical Realm for the Metrickally Measured Linguistical Motivics and Deeply Felt Cinematic Apoggiatura of Mr. David Gatten, Gentleman by Michael Sicinski. Cinema Scope 49 (2011), here.

Friday 17 February

Design Seminar Room

We examine our output from last week’s work at Boston Papermaking Collective, and discuss how we might exploit our paper.

For today, read Betty Bright her History as Fable, Helix, and Aperture in Printing History, New Series No. 11 (January 2012). The essay situates the book arts in the postwar college studio arts framework, and a resultant either-or dichotomy with regard to art/craft. One interesting point is the conception of the artists’ book as a boundary object, a bridge across the arts, sciences and humanities, and the book artist as polymath. (pp21-22)

Artists’ books online
Artists’ Books OnlineAn online repository of facsimiles, metadata, and criticism

Reed College, Artists’ Books Digital Collection

Where does a book begin, and end? How do paratextual elements connect the book (object) to externals? Want also to examine Tan Lin, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (Wesleyan University Press, 2010). See Van Disel’s essay on the book at with hidden noise.

Friday 24 February

Meet in class to discuss our books assembled from samples of the paper we made at Boston Paper Collective; web-research of the artists, authors and others associated with the books we will examine at the Houghton Library next week.

Friday 2 March

Harvard Semitic Museum, and Houghton Library 1
Presentation/discussion, and the first of two field trips to the Houghton Library at Harvard, where we will examine items from the collecton of manuscripts and examples of early printing (one visit), and the Houghton’s collection of artists’ books (the other). Two Houghton Library blogs are worth watching: Modern Books and Manuscripts, and the Houghton Library Blog.

I have prepared a list of items we will be examining at the Houghton; click here for a pdf.

Prior to the Houghton visit, we will examine cuneiform documents, and envelope seals at the Harvard Semitic Museum, whose website is here.

Friday 9 March


Friday 23 March


Curate a presentation of books (8 to 12) that have meant something to you, or animated you, or that you aspire to read, or that you wish had been written, or that you once owned but lost, or that you hated, or that you’ve borrowed and never returned, or, or, or.

Create a catalogue that lists and describes each of these books, shows a page from each, and discusses its importance to you.

It may be (and probably is) the case that the gathering/juxtapositions is/are more important than any one entry.

Bring the books, and draft catalogues, to class on 30 March. read:

  1. two chapters — Imagination and Community and When I Was a Child — in Marilynne Robinson her When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012)
  2. Anthony Grafton, Codex in Crisis (The Crumpled Press, 2008)

Friday 30 / Satuday 31 March

Friday — presentations, work in class; short day (going to New York tomorrow)

Saturday — New York bus trip.

  1. Guggenheim Museum
    John Chamberlain: Choices   here
    Francesca Woodman   here
  2. MOMA
    Printin’   here
    Print/Out   here
    Cindy Sherman   here
  3. The Morgan Library & Museum
    Dan Flavin: Drawings   here.

There was a longer list, but listed above are the exhibitions we saw.

Friday 6 April

Discussion of readings; work in class on book catalogues.

Friday 13 April

Final assembly, presentation of catalogues. Early release.

Friday 20 April

Field trip to Cambridge, depart from Beverly Depot on 8:15 train.

  1. 9:30-10-30 ish — Robin Bledsoe, book dealer (specializing in horse books)
  2. 11:00-noonish — Weissman Preservation Center (Harvard), hosted by Bill Hanscom
  3. 2:00-3:30 — Houghton Library (Harvard), where Hope Mayo will show us manuscripts and early printed books

    Please note the (Houghton) time — I’ve had to push it back an hour, to accommodate a scheduling need at the Houghton.

    Robin Bledsoe asks that everyone read her essay Equestrian Books in the Post-Equestrian Age, that appeared in AB, June 22, 1992.

  4. optional — Brian Savignano’s MFA thesis show across the river at BU. (Brian teaches typography at Montserrat, and is a letterpress guy, too.)

some URLs —
Robin Bledsoe, Book Seller
Weissman Preservation Center

Savignano —
Montserrat alumni/ae announcement
BU MFA show

Friday 27 April

Field trip to Cambridge, depart from Beverly Depot on 8:15 train.

  1. 9:30-10-30 ish — Harvard Map Library, presentation by Joseph Garver (Librarian for Research Services and Collection Development) on cartographic misfits
  2. 11:00-12:30pm — Harvard-Yenching Library, to examine Chinese and Japanese books, including unusual structures and subjects (e.g., pattern and sample books)

    list of items we examined (links to HOLLIS records) here

some URLs —
Harvard Map Collection online exhibition Going for Baroque: The Iconography of the Ornamental Map Harvard-Yenching Library

Friday 4 May

Field trip to Cambridge.

We attend the symposium Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book at MIT, website here, full schedule here.

Students need to register at the above URL in advance (no cost). Students are encouraged to attend the welcome remarks, and performance by Christian Bok, on Thursday evening. The Friday program starts at 12:45 pm (running to around 7:00, followed by reception/exhibition/book fair). It is preceded in the morning by Open House at MIT Institute Archives, Special Collections, and Conservation Lab.

Read the symposium blog, and generally make yourselves familiar with the future-of-the-book issues addressed there. Take notes about what you encounter!

Friday 11 May



Forms and Cultures of the Book
Spring 2012
John McVey, instructor

Fridays, 8:30am – 3:10pm
or other arrangements
meets in letterpress studio (Hardie Basement) or Design Seminar Room (H-309).

office hour — Tuesday, 12:30-1:30, H-309
or contact [email protected].

course description
Historical and critical dimensions of the book and other vehicles for the recording and transmission of textual and visual information, in Western and non-Western settings. Topics include book structures; genres/categories of books; and the present status of the book and its relationship to emerging and competing and/or complementary media. About a third of the course is devoted to the book and print culture of the last century or so, including the livre d’artiste, the literary small press movement, and the artists’ book.

The course involves

  1. lectures and demonstrations;
  2. field trips;
  3. a fair amount of reading; and
  4. a term paper and other writing/presentation assignments.

Required texts —

Markus Boon. In Praise of Copying (Harvard, 2010)

Frederick Kilgour. The Evolution of the Book. (OUP, 1998)

also —

Sara De Bondt and Fraser Muggeridge, eds. The Form of the Book Book (Occasional Papers, 2009, 2010)

Betty Bright. No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America 1960-1980 (Granary, 2005)

criteria for grade —

  1. participation (trips, discussion)
  2. writing
  3. collaborative project : multiform publishing of content generated by participants


  1. Jan 27   ft
  2. Feb 03   ft
  3. Feb 10   ft
  4. Feb 17
  5. Feb 24
  6. Mar 02   ft
  7. Mar 09
  8. Mar 23
  9. Mar 30
  10. Mar 31   ft
  11. Apr 06
  12. Apr 13
  13. Apr 20   ft
  14. Apr 27   ft
  15. May 04   ft
  16. May 11
forms and cultures of the book
spring 2012