Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio. Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Chicago: U of Chicago Library, 2005. xii+124 pp. ISBN 0 943056 34 9.

Katrin Ettenhuber
Christ's College, Cambridge

Ettenhuber, Katrin. "Review of Bradin Cormack and Carla Mazzio, Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 9.1-4<URL:>.
  1. Bradin Cormack's and Carla Mazzio's Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700 is based on an exhibition organised for the Special Collections Research Centre at the University of Chicago Library in Spring 2005. The volume is a valuable contribution to the growing field of book history, and situates itself at the interface between the social and material dimensions of early modern book production. The idea of 'use' is crucial in this respect, both as a principle of selection and arrangement and as a broader methodological framework: in the period between 1500 and 1700, the authors argue, "printed books were primarily understood as instrumental, directing their readers and users, within particular fields of practice and knowledge, toward some more or less practical end" (4). The early modern book is here presented not just as a material object but as a practical tool that mediates and helps shape contemporary systems of knowledge — in the emergent professional disciplines of law and medicine, in the literary, religious and scientific spheres, and, importantly, in the more mundane world of how-to manuals that instructed their readers in everyday activities such as cooking, praying and travelling.

  2. For Cormack and Mazzio, the concept of using a book engages two kinds of practice, one "textual", the other "worldly". Worldly practice represents a whole range of strategies that enable readers to apply a book's lessons to real life. Textual practice, meanwhile, refers to the technological innovations of the early printed book that encourage the reader's active physical engagement and thus transform contact with the text into a form of "doing or action" (3). Johan Remmelin's anatomical atlas A Survey of the Microcosme (1702) embodies this relationship between the material text and the world of professional activity: its interactive, layered illustrations invite the reader to replicate and rehearse the process of dissection by folding back consecutive bodily surfaces. In the act of moving, physically and textually, from skin to bone, the reader simultaneously performs and anticipates the processes of discovery that were being codified in contemporary anatomical discourses.

  3. Book Use, Book Theory is itself a highly desirable material object — beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated with high-quality black-and-white reproductions. The volume starts with a 30-page introduction, followed by a sizeable selection of exhibition items (75 in total). The introduction is a substantial and ambitious piece, taking full account of existing work in the field and setting out the aims of the exhibition with admirable clarity. The catalogue itself is divided into five main sections, which are in turn organised into several subcategories. The first section, "Technologies of Use", explores the material strategies that define a book's use value — from customised bindings and textual annotations that signify ownership and readerly appropriation, to decisions about format and layout that could determine a book's position in the professional marketplace. "Parts and Wholes" focuses on prefaces, tables of contents, indexes and diagrammatic schemes — visual grids that help readers to navigate books but also provide larger-scale models for processing information and organising knowledge. This is a richly rewarding section, not least because it points to some of the downsides of practical utility: Ramist charts and diagrams were frequently seen as intellectual shortcuts that inhibited rather than facilitated a genuinely rigorous engagement with the material at hand. Section Three, on "The How-to Book", also offers numerous interesting insights, but at times it seems as though the examples struggle to support the burden of the argument. It is easy to see, for instance, how a meat-carving manual positions "readers as actors" and requires them "to actualize knowledge by performing it", but does this inevitably lead to "the cultivation of personhood" or even "a transformation of identity" (79)? (A rousing thought for all assemblers of flat pack furniture, though.) The final two sections examine the different ways in which books invited their readers to think beyond the printed text. "Dimensional Thinking" draws its strongest examples from the fields of geometry, astronomy and anatomy to illustrate how physical features such as pop-ups, foldouts and movable discs encouraged readers to imagine a space beyond the two-dimensional confines of the page, while "Taking Liberties" focuses on instances of book use that strain the boundaries of decorum and material representation — midwifery manuals deliberately misinterpreted as pornography, or treatises on music struggling to evoke the idea and sensation of sound.

  4. It is at this point that the volume (perhaps all too briefly) moves out from its self-imposed heuristic boundaries — a world where thought is radically embodied and where 'reading' can at times seem like the poor cousin of vigorous material engagement — and invites reflections on aspects of the book that reach beyond its physical uses. What is done with those reflections is, of course, up to the reader (or user), but putting interpretation back in the frame might be one valuable way forward.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).