Books, like hands, hold our attention. As early as the 12th century, writers began drawing hands in the margins of their books to point to important passages. Such a device gradually passed into typescript and became a commonplace of printed books. It looked like this: ☞. The pointing hand in the book stood for the way books themselves were like pointers, making the world graspable. If books open us out into the world, they also constrain. They bring the world down to size, inoculations against the problem of patternlessness.
The child’s first drawing is often of his or her own hand. The footprint may be the first mark we make in the world (for hospital records), but the handprint is the original sign of self-reflection, of understanding ourselves as being in the world. The “handbook” or “manual”—the book that reduces the world into its essential parts, into outline form—is an extension of this art of measurement. It is one of the oldest types of books, dating back to Epictetus’s Enchiridion
(second century), a short repository of nuggets of wisdom. In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede taught readers to count to a million on their hands in his On the Reckoning of Time
(725). By the 15th
centuries, the measuring hand would become the ultimate sign of our bibliographic relationship to the world, embodied in the new genre of the atlas. In its first incarnation, Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
(1570), the entire world could now be held in the reader’s hand. The secular bravura on display in these books, where the reader assumed the divine view, cannot be overstated. By the 17th
century, the great age of wars of religion, palmistry, and chiromancy, knowledge of and on the hand would become major sciences. Handbooks seem to proliferate in periods of intellectual and technological uncertainty, much as they are proliferating today.
In the 19th century, readers witnessed the birth of reading as touch, in the form of Louis Braille’s invention of a dot-matrix reading system for the blind in 1824. The method derived from an earlier request by Napoleon for a code that could be read by his soldiers at night in the field without the use of light. Braille’s innovation was to make the dot-matrix representation of letters small enough to correspond to a single touch of the finger. It made reading digital in a very literal sense. By the end of the century, libraries such as the National Library for the Blind in Britain contained over 8,000 volumes in braille, one of many subsequent technologies that aimed to bring reading to the visually impaired.
The turn of the 20th century was a period of numerous experiments with the tactility of reading, both practical and impractical, culminating in the modernist revival of experimental books between the world wars. Books made of sandpaper, cardboard, cheap notebook paper, wood, and even metal were some of the many ways that artists experimented with the touch of reading. In the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s celebrated Architecture of VKhUTEMAS (1927), we see how the disembodied hand of the divine voice from the medieval book has returned, now in the form of the drafting hand of modern science. With the compass needle seemingly woven into the hand’s grip, we can see Lissitzky performing a subtle visual pun. The compass needle is imagined to stand in for the sewing needle, one of the original tools of bookmaking through the sewn binding of the book’s spine. For the Russian avant-garde, the rectilinearity of modernism—the cube, plane, column, grid—was as much born from the book as it was the industrial Gargantua of the new machine age. The handbook was one of modernism’s secret muses.
How can we hold, and hold on to, our digital texts today?