Cut/Copy/Paste: Fragments from the History of Bookwork

by Whitney Trettien, Minnesota University Press, 2021, 328 pp.
Paperback, $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0409-8
E-book and digital resources, open access

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With the rapid development of book history as a discipline, recent work has focused on breaking down the book’s elements, forms, genres, and agents into discrete units for close study; zooming in on titlepages, frontispieces and indices, for example, or singling out exceptional publishers, illustrators, and binders. Whitney Trettien’s new book and digital project is a much-needed step back that explores how these delineations obscure the messy world of “bookwork”.  

Throughout Cut/Copy/Paste, Trettien defines and deploys “bookwork” as everything from the making of books to how they can be used. Bookwork is implemented as a framework for understanding the book as an “assembled product of knowledge and itself an engine of knowledge production; it crystallizes ideas through historically contingent processes of labor and disperses them back into the world as particles for others to gather.” (21-22). Using the concept of bookwork in conjunction with her well-chosen case studies, Trettien shows the entangled identities of consumers and creators in a world where print, manuscript, and decorative papers were dissected and reassembled into new works. Each section explores bookworkers or collectives of bookworkers who creatively blend the book culture of their time with their presses, scissors and paste, manipulating fragments of text and images and creating anachronic works that are best understood not as texts but “multidimensional media objects designed with meaning and purpose” (146).1 These include, for example, the women of the seventeenth-century Ferrar/Collet family in Little Gidding, who created bible concordances, or harmonies, by cutting and pasting text and images from diverse sources onto a single page. This particular case shows how items created for mass consumption could be used to create unique works.  

Like the women of Little Gidding, Trettien’s work intentionally creates endless paths of discovery for her reader. To review this book is also to review the rich collection of digital assets that populate the open-source edition of the book. Hosted on the platform Manifold, the online edition of Cut/Copy/Paste is embedded with links to digital facsimiles from libraries around the world, as well as spreadsheets of bibliographic metadata, maps, a draft copy of one of the chapters with editor’s comments, and images of bindings and ballads, to name a few. As she explores early modern people’s remixing of fragmented media, the open-source book parallels these ideas and takes seriously the role of the digital turn on the history of collecting and collective bookwork. Throughout her work, Trettien describes the bookwork of the seventeenth century using terms like “semantic web”, “hypertext”, and “makerspace” to remind us how seemingly disruptive innovations have long been embedded into book making and collecting practices. By using new media to generate knowledge about old, Trettien challenges the false binaries that pervade book historiography: that printing supplanted manuscript, that e-books are the death of material books, and that digital resources threaten libraries. The project’s framing of media transformation and fragmentation as a creative (rather than destructive) force decenters grand publications, collectors, and publishers to highlight the marginal and marginalized.   

The first chapter, “Cut”, spotlights the aforementioned women of Little Gidding and their biblical concordances. This section adds to the recent work on the women by Michael Gaudio, by exploring this type of book “hacking” as a “protofeminist technology”, even invoking comparisons to Riot Grrrl zine culture (6, 36). While it is this section that most explicitly draws attention to collaborative feminist book practice, the whole project embraces these collective principals.  

The focus on homosocial networks of bookworkers continues in the second chapter, “Copy”. This section takes for its case study the bookwork that came out of the domestic press (or makerspace) at Brent Hall by Edward Benlowes and his companion Jan Schoren. The bulk of this section looks at the queerness of his Theophila, a hybrid text that was sold but also published as deluxe presentation copies to his coterie with variable assemblages of images and verse. This work’s play on fixity and uniqueness of print baffled bibliographers and critics, leaving Benlowes as a mostly mocked and overlooked figure in print history.  

This is perhaps the least pointed chapter and the only one where I found an error. One of the old woodcut blocks that Benlowes acquired and used in Theophila is of Queen Elizabeth I, which the text cites as being “originally from the 1578 and 1581 editions of Richard and John Day’s A Booke of Christian Prayers (STC 6429 and STC 6430)” (149-150). However, the woodcut’s first known use was nearly a decade earlier in John Day’s 1569 version of this prayer book, Christian Prayers and Meditations (STC 6428, sig. a1v). This is an understandable misattribution. Day’s two prayer books share so much visual and textual content that for centuries they have been jointly known as “Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer Books”. In 1817 Thomas Frognall Dibdin cited his friend Francis Douce by noting that in “the Prayer-Book of our virgin Queen…of 1569, 1578, and 1581…this cut of Q. Elizabeth was preserved so late as 1652, and was used in the Benlome’s [sic] Theophila printed in that year.” However correct Dibdin’s attribution was, he does not address the larger question of what it means to have a block from 1569 freshly inked in 1652, and this is where Trettien’s analysis is most valuable. As a specialist on the copying and reuse of Tudor relief images, I especially appreciate Trettien’s description of Benlowes' use of older blocks in the period after the English Civil Wars as a “desire to make material sense of his world’s dissolution” (145). The notion that fragments of material culture were significant elements of early modern memory practice, commemoration, and the birth of antiquarianism (as explored by scholars such as Alexandra Walsham and Margaret Aston) is where the next section picks up the thread.3 

The final chapter, “Paste”, is a much-needed reevaluation of the oft-maligned John Bagford. Bagford’s book sourcing helped to establish the libraries of figures like Robert Harley and Hans Sloane, and therefore, should be esteemed as foundational in the British Library’s collecting history. But his personal collections of fragments, printing tools, and “common and contemptible productions” (to again quote Dibdin), stamped him with a reputation as a “wicked old Biblioclast” (185-186). Trettien argues that this shoemaker turned antiquarian used fragments to make “visual essays” about the history of bookwork, from medieval manuscripts used as binding waste to freshly printed souvenirs and ephemera. Through such fragments, Trettien argues that Bagford was able to build “elaborate constellations designed to reveal resonance and dissonance between items” (206). Trettien invokes the similarities between Bagford’s project and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, in which the renowned art historian traced iconography, gestures and themes through visual art to articulate how these renewed themes expose bewegtes Leben (life in motion). However, after centuries of pillaging of Bagford’s scrapbooks by curators, who divided items like art prints from titlepages, the carefully plotted motion of Bagford’s project became more disjointed and his work seemingly more eccentric.  

Perhaps the most illuminating section of this chapter is the one that juxtaposes the developments of scientific inquiry and bibliographic methods, titled A New Historical Consciousness. This section will be especially valuable to those who teach book history and bibliography, exposing how taxonomic categories can obscure as much as they clarify. This chapter lightly touches on how antiquarianism worked to establish English patrimonialism and collecting as a function of seventeenth-century colonialism, but Trettien’s hints are perhaps too subtle (203-204). Here also would have been an opportunity to explore the intersections of the early modern and modern. By delving slightly deeper into these subjects, and building on Bonnie Mak’s critical work on ProQuest’s Early English Books Online (EEBO), there was a missed opportunity to explore how digitizing is a form of copying that creates new objects and privileges specific works based on notions of English identity.4 All the same, this chapter beautifully articulates how class informs our understanding of collecting, how elite gentlemen are seen as connoisseurs, and how the lesser educated, like Bagford, are frequently viewed as “foragers” (185).  

Overall, this project’s innovative coupling of early modern case studies with the accompanying digital project skillfully shows the continuity of bookwork. Like Bagford, Trettien describes grappling with selective fragments from digital facsimiles to construct a material history. Both scholars should be highly praised for attempting to find new ways of using singular specimens to portray the whole. An engaging book history uses its reader’s prolonged attention to reflect on the book in hand or on-screen as an object. Cut/Copy/Paste takes this to a new level by asking the reader to toggle between print and digital, scroll through relational data, discover marginal notes, zoom in to see engraved lines normally undistinguishable to the naked eye, and wonder about how permanent the permalinks will remain. In short, this groundbreaking project asks us to discover and perform our own bookwork. 

For the medieval precedent of this type of bookwork see, Kathryn M. Rudy, Image, Knife, and Gluepot: Early Assemblage in Manuscript and Print (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2019).
Thomas Frognall Dibdin, The Bibliographical Decameron: Or, Ten Days Pleasant Discourse upon Illuminated Manuscripts, and Subjects Connected with Early Engraving, Typography, and Bibliography (London: W. Bulmer & Co., 1817), p. 114.
Margaret Aston, Broken Idols of the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Alexandra Walsham, “Like Fragments of a Shipwreck: Printed Images and Religious Antiquarianism in Early Modern England,” in Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Essays in Interpretation, edited by Michael Hunter (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 87-109; Id., Ceri Law, Bronwyn Wallace, Brian Cummings (eds.), Memory and the English Reformation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization”, Journal of The Association for Information Science and Technology, vol. 65, no. 8 (2014).

Nora Epstein, University of St. Andrews