Gutenberg to Google

January 18, 2013
Raymond R. Owen '14

The fall semester's English 360 course, Authorship and the Technology of Literature: Gutenberg to Google, was a class for the true bibliophile. Regular class days began with a selection of books from the Hampden-Sydney rare book vault awaiting the class on the tables of the fourth floor Cabell Room in the Bortz Library. Using these books, often hundreds of years old, Dr. Evan Davis, Associate Professor of English, would prompt and guide the class discussions. The books never ceased to amaze the students and generated copious interest. Daily hooked in this way, the seven Hampden-Sydney men and lone female faculty auditor began their tours through the complexities of authors, media, readers, finance, materials, and construction of books and general publication.

Davis and Student in Rare Book VaultDuring the class, Professor Davis revealed to the students the history of the author as a professional, the history of changing materials and resources, the machines of the book industry that spawned the industry of circulation, and how all of these shifts and changes affected and effected the works and methods of the contemporary and evolving author. No dynamic of authorship was left untouched; the class would ultimately explore all things book and author.

Davis and Student in LabIn addition to the above-mentioned studies, the course stood apart from previous versions of English 360 by adding a one-credit lab to the standard three credit-hour course. The added lab created a practical exercise in creating book materials and in basic book construction. The final project of the course was an individual book written and constructed by each student, taken from the cumulative course-tracking blog (the blog can still be seen at and collected student writings from throughout the semester.

With the added lab component, the class occupied Gilmer Hall for several days, burning the motors out of several blenders while rendering pulp to make into their own paper. They spent messy afternoons in the art rooms of Winston Hall marbling paper (which for the lay is creating colorful aqueous surface designs) to become the adornment for the final covers of the books under construction. They took personality tests to see what 'types' they were (this author was Baskerville Italic) and compared the master-craft of hand-bound vellum tomes to the shoddy gluing of the class's favorite paperback novel, To Seduce a Sinner.

Student with Franklin PressThe highlight of the class was the trip to the University of Virginia Rare Book School and Rare Collections Library. At the Rare Book School, the students set type and printed the title pages to their books-in-progress on a Vandercook printing press and tried their hand pressing skills on a working replica of a Franklin Press, designed by Benjamin Franklin himself, creating numerous copies of a Virginia Almanac from the year 1749. In the Rare Collections Library, the class encountered Cuneiform tablets nearing five thousand years old, a page from the Gutenberg Bible, manuscripts of both Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and a list of other literary treasures too long to list here.

As a whole, class interest was maintained at a fevered pitch during the entirety of the course and the students participated with the zeal of children on a playground. The class experience became truly a bonding experience for the tight knit group of students. One of the final blog posts was entitled "We Few, We Happy Few," which gives a fitting literary tone to the bittersweet end of the class. This student misses the ongoing polemical debates that raged over the value of footnotes, reading online versus paper texts, Twitter's place in publishing, and whether or not the author or the book itself has any weight in literary theory. One thing is sure, though, whenever the students of the fall semester 2012 Authorship class need a reminder of the glory days of their bibliomania, they only need to smell the pages of an old rare book. All of the class agreed to the pleasantness of old book aroma.