Textual Habits and Textual Habitats: Understanding and Teaching the Materiality of Paper

By Joshua Calhoun

Cover Image: The Nature of the Page by Joshua CalhounA New Yorker assignment that sent Bill McKibben tracking down the sources of every pipe and wire in his apartment eventually led him from the corner of Bleecker and Broadway in New York City to the Arctic Ocean, the Grand Canyon, the jungles of Brazil, and then into the Adirondack mountains. There, in the late 1980s, he settled into a cabin not so far from the source of the Hudson River and began writing The End of Nature, one of the first books on climate change written for a general audience. But it was that work of backtracking to sources that got McKibben thinking about, as he puts it, “the physicalness of the world, the fact that even Manhattan depended on nature, and consumed it for its existence” (McKibben Reader). If McKibben had instead decided to track down the sources of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books kept in the climate-controlled vaults of the Morgan Library less than two miles from his apartment, I would have been saved the trouble of writing The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England.

The Nature of the Page suggests ways for readers to track back from literary ideas in the forms of books to the physical, finite sources of our libraries: native and nonnative plants, slaughtered animals, felled trees, toxic elements, extracted metals. My book’s pages, made from a blend of 30% certified post-consumer waste, a portion of certified mixed recycled sources, and FSC chain-of-custody-certified new pulp, draw attention to the plant, animal, and mineral materials that have been used to create saveable, shareable, semidurable cultural records (“So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”). In the book’s introduction, “Toward an Ecology of Texts,” I write that “At the heart of this work, or more appropriately, at the headwaters, is a fascination with the ecopoetic motif of textual negotiation, with moments when scarcity, possibility, or corruptibility interrupts writers and readers.”

Sometimes we are aware, like McKibben, of the ways that “the physicalness of the world” interrupts and inspires the words we read and write. More often we are not. I wrote much of the book inside the boundaries of the Adirondack Park, a six-million-acre area—larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—of which roughly half is private land (villages, businesses, farms, etc.) and the other half is forest preserve that has been designated “forever wild.” And yet it took years to fully appreciate how my journeys through the watersheds and river valleys between the Adirondacks and East Coast archival libraries have shaped this work and have left me unable to think about technology and progress without also asking about wilderness and landscape. Looking at the wood-paneled walls of reading rooms, I wondered if they, too, had come down the Hudson River to this place. Looking at supposedly blank pages in early printed books, I saw the flecks of embedded plants.

Detail showing embedded flecks and fibers in the page.

Detail showing embedded flecks and fibers in the page. From “The Book” in Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (1655), GEN 144456.49.2.10*, G8v-H1r, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

One of the white lies we have been telling about records of the past is that paper was made from rags. Like saying your bookshelf is made from lumber or that a burger is made from beef, it’s a euphemistic narrative that obscures origins. Consider, for instance, Robert Darnton’s influential schematic diagram “The Communications Circuit,” which was intended as “a general model for analyzing the way books come into being and spread through society” (“What is the History of Books?”). In the diagram, only outputs—human labor and the texts generated by that labor—are mapped; the nonhuman inputs are assumed. Focusing on early handmade paper as a case study, The Nature of the Page tells a different kind of story about paper, one that appreciates the importance of rag shortage and rag recycling, but one that insists that, in the words of papermaker Robert Possehl, “Papermaking is the transformation of a plant.”

Master Papermaker Robert Possehl teaching a student how to make paper.

Master Papermaker Robert Possehl teaching a student how to make paper at an “Ecologies of Handmade Paper” workshop, University of Minnesota, Morris. The purple “Prince Paper” is made from red, white, and blue recycled cotton fibers.

I do not think we can make sense of the textual habits of humans without accounting for textual habitats, how the human species seeks to make sense of the world by using the organisms around them to make records of the past. The Nature of the Page draws literary criticism into a timely and, I think, a necessary conversation with two generative fields of scholarly study that are not typically linked: media history and the environmental humanities. If I have succeeded, the work will give media historians and environmental humanities scholars new ways of noticing the intriguing, specific, traceable ecological backstories of the cultural records that we rely upon to research, teach, and write about the past, present, and future.

From Page to Pedagogy

Teaching new work is my favorite way to integrate new ideas and methodologies into my own thinking and writing, a fact that very much influenced the style and structure of my book. The Nature of the Page is designed a bit like a museum (or even a National Park) in that it offers a lot of general interest material up front before delving into more technical, period-focused explorations. The opening sections (“Beginnings” and “Toward an Ecology of Texts”) are intended to be engaging and broadly accessible; chapter 1 (“Substances Conveying Ideas”) ranges across continents and centuries to retell the history of papermaking as a natural history of resource shortage, exploration, and extraction. (I would be happy to provide accessible PDF files of selected sections for teaching purposes.)

A course module that includes readings from The Nature of the Page might also include selections from Jussi Parikka’s work on the geology of media, N. Katherine Hayle’s figurative concept of “medial ecology” in Writing Machines, and Amaranth Borsuk’s ecologically attentive The Book (my go-to resource for teaching the history of the book in graduate and undergraduate classes). Books on the history of paper are legion, but my favorite outliers—works that deserve more attention than they get—are Therese Weber’s The Language of Paper: A History of 2000 Years, Jonathan M. Bloom’s Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, and Timothy Barrett’s background essay on hand papermaking that is freely available on the Paper Through Time website.

One of the most effective ways to help students think about how human ideas become nonhuman things is to schedule a class session in a Special Collections library. Most institutions have a rare books collection with holdings across several centuries or more, and that’s really all you need. Thanks to ASLE’s Teaching Resource Database, I’m able to share the simple, first-visit-to-Special-Collections guide I use. I am also trying out a new “Bestiary of the Book” assignment with students in Holding History, a mentoring-driven public humanities program that I co-direct. The assignment asks students to research and then blog about the textual history of a single living being—both how it has been written about in texts and how it has been used to make texts. I would be happy to share that work-in-progress (email me at holdinghistory@wisc.edu), and I will add the assignment to the database once we’re done beta testing it this semester!

Headshot of Joshua CalhounJoshua Calhoun, Associate Professor of English and Faculty Affiliate with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializes in Shakespeare, 16th- and 17th-century poetry, the history of media, and the environmental humanities. His work has been published in PMLAShakespeare Studies, and Environmental Philosophy. Calhoun is also the co-founder of Holding History, a mentorship-driven public engagement project that involves hands-on training in book making and archival research.

Website: www.joshuacalhoun.org
Holding History Website: www.holdinghistory.org
Twitter: @awayandback