Course: Commonplace Reading, or, Book Love

HC 421H

Professor: Mai-Lin Cheng

How do we read? What is reading now? Has reading always been what we think it is? What does it mean to love books?

In this course, we will explore the connections between reading and writing in the world of commonplace books from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, books in which readers created their own personal anthologies, with passages, images, and other artifacts important to them. The commonplace book is an artifact of active reading. In it, the reader becomes writer. The interchangeability of these two modes of relating to texts is, of course, familiar in our contemporary era of cutting-and-pasting, tweeting and retweeting, liking and linking. Students will be encouraged to experiment with individual methods of expressing “book love” in creating their own print or digital commonplace books.

Some of the questions we will ask include:

  • What kinds of selves emerge in these books?
  • How do we read a book that is made up of a series of often unrelated fragments and extracts?
  • In what way does the information technology of today depart from or continue earlier modes of reading?

We will work with UO Special Collections in Knight Library and online digital collections to identify relevant artifacts; class seminars may include guest visits with rare books librarians, artists, architects, and rare books dealers; a prominent scholar of the history of reading, Prof. Deidre Lynch of Harvard, will visit class in October.

Course materials will include a selection of primary and secondary writings to situate “book love” in the first part of the term; in the second part of the term, students’ own archival work and disciplinary interests will determine our readings and discussions, as the class participates in designing an exhibition for UO Special Collections. Authors may include: W. H. Auden, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Octavia Butler, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and others determined by student interests.

There is no prerequisite for this course, but students who have taken HC 223 with Prof. Cheng are especially encouraged to enroll.