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Form Matters

One Ogden Honors class explores how a book's form illuminates its content

Here at the Ogden Honors College, we’re always looking for new classes to offer to our students. One of our major goals is to expose students to a wide range of intellectual thought and ideas, uncovering subjects or fields they may have never thought to explore. This spring, we offered a new and intriguing course: The History of the Book in America. Taught by Professional-in-Residence John Miles, who holds a joint appointment in the LSU Department of English and Hill Memorial Library, the class seeks to connect the physicality of the book to its artistic content and cultural value.

“The overarching idea that we’re investigating is how books’ form and content affect their readers’ understanding,” Miles said. “We’re interested in how the social work of the book is dependent upon both its content—the text itself—as well as its material wrapper, in the form of the paper, leather, and ink product that must move from a writer’s mind, through the press, and out to the reader, wherever he or she may be.”

History of the Book 3Excited by the vast resources of Hill Memorial Library, Miles constructed the course as a way to bring together his interest in the social work of the book with the collections available in the library. A perfect fit, he thought, for the “kind of interdisciplinary investigation of an idea that the Honors College allows.”

Before coming to LSU, Miles was an assistant professor in the English department at the University of Memphis. He writes about early American literature, literature and history, and early American print culture. Recently, his research has focused on the early American colonists’ construction of an identity using the printed record, and traces community formation through stories about the community and the books that contain them.History of the Book 2

On a recent spring day, we had the chance to sit in on Miles’ class, where discussion focused on Frederick Douglass’ famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The class mixed close reading with careful analysis of various newspapers from Douglass’ lifetime that had been pulled from the special collections of Hill Memorial Library. As students studied the newspapers, Miles carefully directed the conversation to how the documents illuminated Douglass’ narrative. Students looked to articles, opinion pieces, and even advertisements for insight.

“I’ve always been interested in the power of stories of the past to bind people together in the present, and I’m increasingly interested in not just how stories do this work of creating community, but how the physical object of the book does so as well.”

We often hear about the demise of the printed book in the age of eBooks and digital downloads, but Miles argues that we are actually becoming “more aware of the materiality of an object that we’ve previously taken for granted.”

"As a literary scholar I’m committed to the idea that the text itself has the power to move us in whatever form we find it, but as a historian of print culture I’m also always aware that books do not just happen, but rather that their physical form matters.”

History of the Book 1Paying attention to the “how” of the book is useful and productive, and Ogden Honors College students taking the course agree.

“One thing that I really enjoy about Honors students is their intellectual curiosity. Interesting things don’t always announce their interesting qualities, and it’s the work of us as scholars to tease apart the mundane to find them interesting motivations and movements beneath the surface. Honors students are up to this challenge, and seem to take some joy in probing beyond the obvious to the intriguing.”

The Ogden Honors College, established in 1992, is a vibrant, diverse and prestigious community located at the heart of LSU. The Honors College provides students with a curriculum of rigorous seminar classes, as well as opportunities for undergraduate research, culminating in the Honors Thesis. Its focus on community service, study abroad, internships, and independent research helps today’s high-achieving students become tomorrow’s leaders.