Can a book be an agent, Ms. Gleixner?

On 5 April 2016 the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel will host a four-day international conference titled “Biographies of the Book”. In the following interview, conference director Ulrike Gleixner talks about the vicissitudes in the life history of a volume, new research perspectives which libraries stand to gain by focusing on material culture and why the haptic character of a book always contains references to its content.

Eventful life history: Turkish costume book from 1570 with reddish brown leather covering and gold embossing. The front page contains a biography of handwriting in the form of entries by the book's previous owners. © HAB

Interview questions by Nicole Alexander

In his essay “The Cultural Biography of Things”, the anthropologist Igor Kopytoff argues that not only humans, but also objects have life histories. The conference “Biographies of the Book” extends this theory to books. How does the life history of a book or medieval manuscript manifest itself?

The biography of a book originates from the vicissitudes of its existence. Printed copies and manuscripts are handed down from one owner to the next. Like links in a chain, one often finds several entries of ownership within one volume – when someone marks their book as its owner, the next owner tends to follow suit to make the new rights of ownership visible. Readers of books often add, comment and annotate the text, and some even enhance it with drawings and pictures. This makes the copy a one-of-a-kind, and its biography becomes something we can investigate. Books also go travelling. Many of them move thousands of kilometres away from where they were written or printed. But they can also come back, can return home from exile, for example. In their travels they come in contact with various “book neighbours” in different collections, they receive multiple catalogue numbers from various libraries.

There must be plenty of books and manuscripts at the Herzog August Bibliothek which have an eventful life history simply on account of their age. Is there any work whose biography especially impresses you?

I constantly come across works which really touch me – especially when I get to hold them in my hands in the reading room, and the haptic and intellectual experience merges to form a personal process of understanding. In the collection here, we have a Turkish costume book with a pasteboard binding and flap, reddish brown leather covering and gold embossing in the corners and centre. This volume contains a series of colourful, original miniatures without text that were hand-pasted into the book and framed in gold paint. For example, there are illustrations of a pasha with two janissaries, Mongolian warriors, a Turkish court official, a dancer, a leper with a horn and book, and an Islamic monk. The entries of the book’s previous owners on the front page represent a biography of handwriting to a certain extent. Above the coat of arms, Laurentius Goßtony is named as the owner, and directly underneath his coat of arms, information about its origin, from which we gain that the illustrated manuscript was produced by Balázs Csömön Szigetváry in Constantinople at the home of captain Ali Pasha in 1570. The second owner indicated his identity at the very top of the page, dated 1579 ad diem Marcii primo, and placed his name “Georg Korteler” like a transparent foil at the lower right and left of the previous owner’s coat of arms. These entries presumably animated Duke Ludwig Rudolf of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, the grandson of Duke August, to add his own name to the page while travelling to Nuremberg on 4 January 1709.

Do you think that our perception and perhaps even our appreciation of the “book” as an object have changed as a result of this increased interest in material culture?

The shift in focus toward material culture has definitely led the humanities to “rediscover” the book as a thing in itself, and with this discovery, given life to an extremely fascinating branch of research – and in some way, I belong to this group of researchers. Yet the field of book history, book-binding research and provenance study has long been a time-honoured research field among librarians of ancient collections and manuscripts, as well as for book studies scholars at universities. The Wolfenbüttel Research Group for Library, Book and Media History is over 40 years old. This is where the old hats and greenhorns so to speak come together and mutually enrich one another.

What does it mean for research if our primary interest is no longer in the content, but rather the materiality of books?

Basically I feel we shouldn’t submit to this kind of dichotomisation. Because a book’s material character always refers back to its content as well. During the Middle Ages and early modernity, not every text was produced as an opulent edition – these were liturgical, Biblical, religious texts. Texts were commented on and annotated through the practice of reading. Here, too, the material character and the content are inherently connected. For instance, take the canonical editions of works by Lessing, Schiller and Goethe. Their induction into our literary canon is also due to their frames, which includes their book covers. Their material character coalesces with their content and creates a dynamic heightening. Materiality becomes part of the process, through which writers are canonised.

Will this shift to material culture in the humanities, which you just mentioned, lead to new research perspectives for the Herzog August Bibliothek?

Yes, we can expect a wide array of new research perspectives. To name just two examples: Book ownership can serve as proof of exile. Religious dissidents frequently took their books with them into exile. Some of these libraries were auctioned off after their owners passed away. The Herzog August Bibliothek possesses some 1,100 auction catalogues pre-dating 1800, some of which can be examined from the perspective of exile. Another example is prayer books which are chock-full of notes of ownership and gifting, and possess numerous signs of usage. An investigation of this book genre could lead to the study of the subjective appropriation of piety.

Let’s talk more specifically about the conference “Biographies of the Book”. One of its sections is titled “Fetish – Waste”. Why do some books attain cult status while others are relegated to the waste bin?

Books gain their status through social, cultural, political and religious evaluation. When a political entity collapses, the only people still interested in studying its legal texts are researchers. And when a religion is dismantled, for example, the Catholic faith and rites in Reformatory territories, then the liturgical texts which were formerly imbued with a sacred character, lose their magic and are reduced to their material value.

In the section “Medium – Agent”, books are no longer viewed solely on the basis of their connection to people. Rather, they are granted a power of agency which makes them appear like an active element in cultural constellations. Can you elaborate on this with a specific example?

I admit calling a book an agent is somewhat daring, and it’s something we have to discuss intensively at the conference. For instance, if you imagine a 17th-century prayer book containing a personal dedication by a ducal sister to her brother, and the brother took this very small copy with him on a crusade against the Turks, it’s possible that this book served to mobilise his military prowess against the Ottoman enemy. Who, then, is the agent here? We have several small-format Arabic manuscripts, so-called “dream books” or “spell books”. These private, handwritten notebooks contained mantras and mathematical drawings which supposedly bestowed magical powers to those who carried such books like amulets or recited their mantras. The idea of viewing books as agents aims to take social and cultural book-related practices seriously in order to reveal the multifaceted forms of agency of books.

The presentation topics range from variants of the vernacular in medieval codices to transit stations of an exile library to digital editions. Why was it important to you that the conference address themes spanning several centuries?

The MWW Research Association is dedicated to conducting research on epoch-spanning themes – and for good reason, as the humanities and cultural studies are both traditionally restricted to specific time periods. Breaking with this convention permits us to examine book practices stretching over many centuries and, in so doing, enables us to make structural assertions regarding books. It allows us to recognise processes which run their course over several epochs, each of which is associated to a specific time and social environment.

Prof. Dr. Ulrike Gleixner
is the head of the Research Planning and Research Projects department at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (HAB). She is responsible for supervising the international conference “Biographies of the Book”, which will take place at the HAB from 5 to 8 April in coordination with the MWW Research Association. All presentations at the conference are open to the general public. Admission is free of charge. To register for the conference, please contact:

More information about the conference

Conference flyer with programme (in German)