Readers at Work

The current temporary exhibition at the Bodmer Foundation (Cologny, Geneva) showcases different types of readers interactions with books throughout history. I had the pleasure of co-curating this exhibition with Profs. Michel Jeanneret (University of Geneva) and Frédéric Kaplan (Digital Humanities Lab, EPFL, Switzerland). The exhibition website is now available at with in-depth descriptions of all the objects presented at Cologny (only in French, for now).

The exhibition Readers at work shows how a text can be modified by its readers. It looks at the different ways they intervene in the life of a book and leave their personal mark, thus giving it a new look. This can be by making editorial choices, by adding personal notes or scholarly commentaries in the margin of the book, or indeed by illustrating or translating it. Signs of ownership of a book – coffee stains, tears  – all bear witness to the text’s life. The reader manipulates, paws, bends the book, making it part of his own private space. See, for example, this book by Isaac Newton: Leibniz took possession of the volume by leaving critical notes in the margins. Moreover, as he had a habit of reading in bed at night while smoking his pipe, it is probably he who also left burn marks on several pages.

The exhibition also includes a number of interactive books and thus points out parallels between traditional book reading and digital reading. Visitors (to the exhibition and online) will have access to a great number of digital and experimental documentation via two holographic installations and an online catalogue designed to work on iPads (which can be borrowed while visiting the exhibition).


Another fine example of censorship from the 17th century. No wonder, as this is a book of secrets (more on this later)



Copious text blotted out with ink, with extensive bleeding-through.

From various pages of of De Secretis Libri XVII, by Johann Jacob Wecker (1662). [Here]

Could this be censorship? (Article) (Also) (In addition) (And) (More!) —kcw

Google Books & the Spanish Inquisition

Google Books is full of surprises, with its unexpected pictures of rubber gloved and perfectly manicured hands of anonymous librarians, pages turned at the wrong moment, unexpected folds … Glitches such as those are part of the reader’s interaction with the book and Kristina Wilson – who curates the excellent Art of Google Books – rightly pointed out that the “the signs of use that accompany digitized texts [are] worthy of documentation and study.”

Very recently I stumbled upon a book which shows even older signs of human “intervention”, and which lie silently on Google Books, waiting for a more thorough indexing & meta-data description system which would allow researchers to locate more easily such outstanding volumes.

Long before Google cast its infra-red, probably 3D scan eye, there was an even closer inspection over this medical treatise dating back to 1565 and written by the Portuguese Jewish physician Amato Lusitano. A collection of medical case-studies, often dealing with melancholy & hypochondria, this book was highly influential throughout the 16th century and well into the 17th c. Intended mainly for physicians or surgeons, it was a practical guide providing its readership with a rich collection of patient-histories and relevant curative lessons.

But more than half a century after its publication, this particular copy (scanned from Madrid’s Complutense Library) got into the hands of the … Spanish Inquisition. As a result, page-long fragments were “expurgated” by a zealous reader: phrases or keywords were crossed out & carefully covered in black ink so that the eyes of the pious might not fall over dangerous content. Sometimes the ink was so copiously applied that it burnt through the page, literally cutting out the unwanted words.

The above pages are taken from Google Books and are part of a case-history dealing with a hypochondriac affection cured in a very unexpected manner: with the help of bellows

Hypochondria was thought to be a melancholy-related disease of the abdomen which produced pathological fumes - dangerous for the brain. So the physician advises the use of a blacksmith’s bellows to extract the unwanted air and thus cure the hypochondriac folly. 

A closer examination on these pages has yet to reveal which were exactly the fragments unwanted by the Inquisition (but most probably there must have been religious references which the Inquisition thought better to extract from a medical book written by a Jewish physician).

Further Reading:

  • Lusitanus, Amatus. 1565. Curationum medicinalium centuria duae tertia et quarta, Paris, Guillaume Rouillé Google Books copy available here;
  • Pomata, Gianna. 2010. « Sharing Cases: The “Observationes” in Early Modern Medicine ». Early Science and Medicine 15 (3): 193-236.

Past is Present: L’Arboro della Pazzia on

Who said that history, the arts or the humanities in general are of no use to the financial markets? Look for yourselves: is the clipping below not a perfectly apropriate depiction of today’s financial madness? The image is taken from a late 16th c. Italian broadsheet depicting in thirty similar scenes the dangerous aspects of human interactions, professions or activities. Titled the Arboro della Pazzia, it had a satirical & moralizing purpose following the tradition of humanist books on folly like Eramus’ Praise of Folly. shows a British Museum reproduction of the entire broadsheet.

Change of air (#histsci #dh11)

Now that I arrived in Stanford, ahead of the Digital Humanities 2011 conference, I remembered how Robert Burton once advised the change of air, or travelling, as a treatment for melancholy:
Although our ordinary air be good by nature or art, yet it is not amiss still to alter it; no better physick [medication] for a melancholy man than change of air and variety of places, to travel abroad and see fashions. (…) No man (…) can be such a stock or stone, whom that pleasant speculation of countries, cities, towns, rivers, will not affect. (…) For peregrination charmes our senses with such unspeakable and sweet variety, that some count him unhappy that never travelled, a kind of prisoner, and pity his case, that from his cradle to his old age beholds the same still;

(Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, Partition 2, Sect. 2, Member 3)

Scholars, Beware of Over-Studying. A Short Early modern Case-History

Working at the Public Library in Geneva, I am surrounded by young undergraduates fervently reading, cross-marking & stabilo-bossing their coursework. I am amazed at how motivated and determined they are (possibly taking advantage of mild cognitive neuro enhancers* like Italian Coffee, or Rivella, the Swiss soft-drink and national treasure), in spite of the occasional side-line activities ranging from nose-blowing, non-verbal micro-talking to post-modernly incomprehensible courting & flirting.

But I wonder if they are aware how dangerous over-studying can become? Here is the story of a student who must have abused his daily dose of the early modern version of Aderal:

I have read that a young scholler [student] being in his studie, was taken with a strange imagination: for he imagined that his nose was so great and so long, as that he durst [dared] not stirre out of his place, lest he should dash it against something: and the more he was dealt with and disswaded, so much the more did he confirme himselfe in his opinion.

In the end a Phisition [Physician] having taken a great piece of flesh, and holding it in his hand secretly, assured him that he would heale him by and by, and that he must needes take away this great nose: and so upon the suddaine pinching his nose a little, and cutting the piece of flesh which he had, he made him believe that his great nose was cut away.

(Excerpted from André Du Laurens, Discours des maladies mélancoliques (1594), trans. R. Surphlet, London, F. Klingston, 1599.)

Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) dedicated a long subsection of his First Partition to the excessive study as a serious cause of the melancholy disease. The title is self-explanatory:

Love of Learning, or overmuch study. With a digression of the misery of Scholars, and why the Muses are melancholy.

(Partition 1, Section 2, Member 3, Subsection 15 available on-line via an 1807 edition digitized by Google Books. (1594), trans. R. Surphlet, London, F. Klingston, 1599.)


* On a sideline, and more seriously, problems brought by modern day cognitive neuro enhancers were discussed in an excellent New Yorker piece by Margaret Talbot : Brain Gain. The underworld of “neuroenhancing” drugs (with some useful comments by Jonah Lehrer on his blog).

RT @drszucker: The seduction of knowledge: Lucus Cranach the Elder ‘s Adam and Eve, a new Smarthistory video with @ …

Renaissance Italy in 3D: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood - a review by the Guardian

A remarquable instrument: the Printed Book. A reminder

A remarquable instrument: the Printed Book. A reminder

Emerging from piles of digital articles, reading about digital corporations of all sorts, marvelling at ambitious national digitization projects with exotic names, I was lucky to find a very funny, sincere and touching essay on”how simple, how beautiful in concept, how smart and functional, how versatile the book page” really is. 

In a few paragraphs written for an e-diary which unfortunately has not been updated since 2007, Cécile Alduy* reminds us that there is nothing compared to the simple pleasure of randomly opening a book, turning its pages, reading it in the sunlight (well, Amazon likes to think that their new Kindle, as opposed to the iPad, can be extensively used while sunbathing poolside) :

plaisir de feuilleter, d’ouvrir le livre au hasard, de revenir sur ses pas, de faire tourner les pages avec le pouce sur la tranche comme un jeu de cartes à battre, de commencer par la fin, d’écrire dessus, entre les lignes, sur les mots, dans les marges, de récrire sur ces marginalia, de corner les pages, de les déchirer, de coller de marques pages et autres stickers de couleur.
De lire dans son bain, au soleil, debout dans le métro, dans un café, un avion, un bus, la cuisine, un parc, la forêt, la chambre (et ailleurs). (full text available here)

And my favourite line:

Le livre est poli: jamais il ne vous lancerait: “has unexpectedly quit.”

The book is indeed more polite than any browser, it never freezes, dies or disappears; nor does it suddenly become auto-ironic. Which is something happening a lot with the Google Chrome browser. What follows is rather off-topic, but quite funny…

A few hours ago, I got suddenly disconnected from the Internet, so when I tried access the page, I was shown the following text by the Google Chrome browser: 

This webpage is not available.
The webpage at might be temporarily down or it may have moved permanently to a new web address.

In a way this implies that Google Chrome can never encounter any problems, and the careful wording of the error message moves the attention away from what might be a browser problem. While this might work for any other website (Google has enough authority to tell us when a website’s gone, moved, closed the business, unexpectedly quit or dissappeard mysteriously in the binary fog), it does sound a lot like involuntary humour when Chrome displays such a text in relation to their own website… Google has left the building.


*Cécile Alduy is assistant professor of French at Stanford and the creator of the Renaissance Body Project. The essay quoted above  is part of the “Studio” – the “informal” part of the project, containing, appart from this e-diary, an unexpected Youtube video about which I am currently writing a post.