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Bonnie Mak. How the Page Matters.

Bonnie Mak. How the Page Matters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 176 pp.; $55.00 ISBN 9780802097606

Bonnie Mak traces the ever-changing understanding of Buonaccorso da Montemagno's Controversia de nobilitate from its first appearance as a fifteenth-century manuscript to its modern digital versions. How the Page Matters represents an impressive scholarly accomplishment. Mak positions her work as a bridge between book history divisions such as print versus manuscript, or paper versus parchment. While drawing our attention to the page as a cultural phenomenon and evidence of "multiple modes of production, including handwriting, printing, and computation" (73), she shows that equating modes of production with specific historical periods overly simplifies the discipline, as well as limits the possibility of discovering new relationships between particular representations. For instance, she notes that printers have continued to use parchment and that illumination appears in many printed materials; one cannot say that parchment and illumination only belong to a particular era. By focusing on the page, she argues that we notice the stability over time of things like scripts and typefaces, layout, images, white space, and paratextual devices, all of which contextualize particular texts as they are understood and presented by printers and publishers. Moreover, the very materiality of the page itself provides clues to the cultural significance of the text.

Mak provides high-quality, full-page images of selected pages from the Controversia de nobilitate, illustrating the differences and similarities evidenced by Humanistic book-hand, Gothic cursive, typefaces influenced by both these hands, illuminations, and woodcuts, as well as other components such as pagination, title-pages, and dedications. These specific examples illustrate clearly Mak's thesis that the page identifies and informs the meaning to be taken from it. Digitizing different instances of pages from a particular text allows us to observe all these modes simultaneously, so that we can see how particular hands, typefaces, scholarly apparatus, marginalia, and library marks show how the text has been understood through time.

Mak's examination of how digitization influences the reception of the text is particularly intriguing. In Early English Books Online (, for example, she notes that the digitized text is one printed by Caxton, bound in with an edition of On Old Age by Cicero. She observes that the database offers "an interpretation of the microfilm of a single copy of Caxton's edition that possesses its own distinct materiality and social history" (67). In other words, just as a photograph is not a simple surrogate for the captured object so too the carefully selected, edited, and contained digital version comprises assumptions and contributions by producer and reader (or viewer).

Similarly, Mak investigates the versions of the Controversia de nobilitate published by the Royal Library of Belgium in the e-Librairie des dues de Baurgogne (eLDB). She argues that the eLDB, an attempt to recreate a ducal library developed over generations, encourages readers to "consider the digitizations as unmediated reflections of fifteenth-century manuscripts" (68). Of course, the very structure of the eLDB mediates the text from the beginning, placing it in close association with didactic texts rather than categorizing it as a philosophical, theological, or literary work. The Controversia de nobilitate has been considered a contribution to each of those disciplines during its history, but the eLDB, like any other categorization systems, tends to minimize the complex resonances of a text as it survives long periods of cultural change.

In fact, the influence of categorization is not restricted to digital versions. Mak describes how the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, where twenty-two manuscript and incunable versions of Buonaccorso's text are preserved, separates these versions according to their production, subject matter, language, and monetary value. Despite the fact that print and manuscript editions were produced and read concurrently, the institutional needs of the library to protect, classify, and retrieve individual books require it to overlook "the overlapping and simultaneous histories of the manuscripts and printed" versions of the Controversia (56). The contribution Mak makes with her book is her clear and succinct description of the shifting meaning of the Controversia de nobilitate over five centuries of existence in libraries, universities, courts, and personal collections.


University of Manitoba
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Author:Ford, Lyle
Publication:Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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