Paper trails

6 months ago 88

Referring to the material properties of a book is sometimes a sly way of denigrating it. The dust-jacket illustration, the quality of the paper: these can seem beneath the interest of serious readers and writers, but fair game to be subtly scoffed at when a book is deemed pretentious or trashy. It would be difficult, however, and neglectful, not to mention the physical form – or, perhaps, forms – of Inscription, a journal about the material text founded in 2020 by Simon Morris, a professor of art at Leeds Beckett University, Adam Smyth, a professor of English and the history of the book at the University of Oxford, and Gill Partington, a fellow in book history at the Institute of English Studies in London.

Inscription features “work by practitioners – book artists, printmakers and writers – alongside academic discussion”, and covers not just the “meanings and uses” of the traditional book, but also “the nature of writing surfaces, and the processes of mark-making in the widest possible sense: from hand-press printing to vapour trails in the sky; from engraved stones to digital text”. (There is nothing that is not a text if thinking makes it so; one of the contributors to the second issue, the artist Fiona Banner, issued herself an ISBN and registered herself as a publication under her own name, “a sort of self-portrait as a book”.)

The first three issues were delivered to my flat in flat boxes, like an order of curiously dense pizzas. They required not just opening, but quite an involved process of unpacking: each one includes an array of freebies, curios, bonus materials, pull-outs and fold-outs. The second issue, themed around holes, comes with prints of Harold Offeh’s photographs of mouths stopped up by crystals, a concertina-folded booklet of hole-punched paper rolls that were used in twentieth-century self-playing pianos, a 6ft-tall print of a poem by Carolyn Thompson, a bookmark, a postcard and so on. That issue’s editorial points out the etymological root of “magazine” in the Arabic makhzan, or “storehouse”, suggesting the editor’s sense of a journal “as a space for holding non-aligned, non-harmonised items”. That idea anticipates the miscellaneous contents of each box.

As much as Inscription is about the history of the material text, it also aims to form part of that history. Executed in collaboration with the Fraser Muggeridge studio in London, the design of each issue is a dizzying experiment (sometimes literally dizzying: inside issue one, the angle of the text, changing page by page, compels the reader to rotate their copy as they read). The whole thing is charged with an infectiously nerdy sense of play, and the voice of the editors is almost audible beneath each ornament and novelty: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this?” But Inscription is also a home for serious, leading-edge research and writing. To the third issue, themed around folds, Hester Lees-Jeffries contributes a suitably multilayered reflection on Shakespeare’s “imagining of the text as a dynamic, folded and foldable thing”. Alice Wickenden’s article in the first issue, about the provenance and categorization of Hans Sloane’s library and collections, is similarly illuminating.

Reading Inscription is not always a comfortable experience. The text-rotation induced, in me, a motion-sick headache. My real battle, though, was with the third issue, in which each article is presented, according to the editorial, in “what in origami … is known as a Japanese preliminary base fold”. You’re meant to “pull on the corner, and the pages open up before you” as they fold “outwards, producing depth”. This is a lovely idea, but exquisitely annoying in practice, and it’s almost impossible to put the issue away properly afterwards. It’s hard to escape the sense that, like the scientists of Jurassic Park, the editors were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should.

Still, Inscription is a shot in the arm for academic publishing, which, as anyone who has spent any time in academia knows, is largely a cartel. Print-house party tricks aside, Inscription is a gold-rated open-access journal with virtually no restrictions on online reading or sharing of its articles. That, surely, is one experiment worth repeating.

James Waddell is an early modernist and freelance writer based in London. He is a PhD candidate in English at UCL. He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin House Literary Prize in 2018

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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