Grafton, Anthony, Glenn W. Most, and Ku-ming (Kevin) Chang, eds. 

Impagination – Layout and Materiality of Writing and Publication: Interdisciplinary Approaches from East and West

De Gruyter, 2021

510 pages


Reviewed by Alicen Davis

Examining how material and social realities influence textual production, Impagination urges us to consider that which contributes to a text’s position as a cultural object. It would be difficult not to notice how the focus of this collection of essays is registered in the reader’s embodied experience. I read this volume in digital format on a small tablet and used a stylus to make notes on the screen. In the application, a swipe to the next ‘page’ in the ebook triggers a delightful animation mimicking the turning of a physical page. There is, of course, no practical use for this. Even the terms ‘stylus’ and ‘tablet’ are holdovers from premodern writing practices, recalling the clay cuneiform records of ancient Mesopotamia. Impagination suggests that these metaphors serve to connect the digital object to its material predecessors. Among other topics, Impagination explores how features of writing born from circumstance or necessity can be codified into production standards. The result is that certain features of the written document once implemented for practical purposes continue to be used in newer technologies in spite of their obsolescence. Tibetan loose-leaf books, for example, incorporated nonfunctional circular designs to replace the holes historically used to bind Indian palm-leaf documents. While the development of writing technologies offers new possibilities for text production, it simultaneously induces tension between established tradition and innovative practice. Still, technological changes to writing have also opened up opportunities for scribes and publishers to play with the page, creating new visual meanings and reshaping the relationship of written information and its container.

This is only one example of Impagination’s hermeneutic use of its eponymous term. So what is ‘impagination’ and how does the concept feature across the volume’s chapters? As the term cleverly puns on ‘imagination’ and ‘page,’ the Introduction rightly begins to answer these questions with a dissection of the latter. For the editors, a page is “a unit of writing and reading on all material carriers . . . that is comparable to the page in the codex.” Despite its elasticity, the definition offered for the page illustrates how modern writing’s predominant use of codicological format structures our thinking about discrete textual units. Past and future technologies of writing (or ‘writing supports’) are compared against the standard of the modern book. Having described the page as such, the Introduction supplies the following definition for impagination: “the art of placing and arranging spatially textual and other information onto the ‘page.’” The first thing any book historian or paleographer might notice about this description is its proximity to mise en page, a French term for the arrangement of text on the space of the page. The editors immediately insist on a lexical difference between impagination and mise en page by enumerating their distinguishing features. Whereas mise en page is exclusive to textual layout, impagination encompasses several “intertwining levels” that each correspond to a particular aspect of the written text. First there is the level of the page itself, its media and substances, its function within the text, and its resemblance to other writing supports. On the second level, impagination deals with inscribed or imprinted content. This is where we find comparisons of text and paratext, including commentaries and marginal glosses, as well as the written languages that appear on the page. Finally, at the third level of impagination is layout. Mise en page thus corresponds to only one of the three modes of inquiry afforded in the concept of impagination, which encapsulates the triangular relationship between page, imprint, and layout.

Impagination’s main object of interest is the modern book. The volume is organized diachronically around the book-object and categorizes its essays into three discrete historical eras: premodern manuscript culture, text production in the age of the printing press, and the post-codex digital world. Section 1, “Slips, Scrolls, and Leaves: Before the Codex,” is concerned mainly with the mutually constitutive relationship between the technologies, materials, and practices of manual writing. How are primary texts visually distinguished from commentaries? What do margins and spacing tell us about how a reader was expected to experience the text and the circumstances of its creation? How do changes in medium affect textual production, circulation, and reception? These chapters offer complex answers to these questions with research on ancient and medieval manuscript histories, showing how materials available for writing supports have influenced pre-print impagination—and vice versa.

In Section 2, “The Printed World,” the volume shifts its focus from handwritten manuscripts to mechanically produced texts and bindings. Technological advancement in bookmaking demanded more planning and forethought on the part of the manufacturer, and so the editor/publisher was elevated to the position of interlocutor. Mass production also made written texts more easily accessible to underprivileged classes. Keysook Choe identifies and defines a “complex semiotic system” in an early modern morality textbook from Chosŏn, which incorporated illustrations as well as writing systems for male literati (Chinese hanmun) and women (the vernacular Korean Hangul). Choe’s essay is among the strongest in the book, as it exercises all three ‘levels’ of impagination laid out in the Introduction, and furthermore examines how printing physically brought together elite and vernacular writing.  

The final section, “Beyond the Book,” consists of a single chapter on the affordances of online academic periodicals. Ku-ming (Kevin) Chang urges humanities scholars, whom he characterizes as slow to accept digital modernization, to take a page out of the STEM book, as it were, and recognize the benefits of online-only scholarship. Ultimately, Chang’s final chapter to the book (both Impagination and the proverbial book-object itself) leaves the reader discontented. Though teased extensively in the Introduction to the volume, the future of “the page” in an increasingly digital world is discussed only peripherally in Sections 1 and 2 and through a frustratingly narrow scope in Section 3. This reinforces the book’s function as a call for further research in digital humanities, book history, and comparative philology.

By collecting studies of Western and Eastern texts respectively into a single volume, Impagination seeks to reconceptualize communicative and material innovation throughout the history of bookmaking, recentering the heretofore myopic, Western-focused research in this field. Regrettably, the limited scope of each individual chapter undermines its aspirations toward an inclusive global perspective. The collection indeed prioritizes multilingual writing cultures, but only those within small geographical areas. Put another way, Impagination obfuscates the intercultural exchanges influencing medieval and early modern writing systems, overlooking compelling new developments in the field of early globalisms. And, ironically, the repeated emphasis on mostly culturally homogeneous societies can only reinforce a colonialist boundary between East and West.

However, the metanarrative of the book makes up for what it lacks in globalist inquiry. This volume represents the all too uncommon venture of collaborative cross-cultural scholarship. According to the Acknowledgements, Impagination is the fruit of a discussion at Academia Sinica in Taipei that brought together scholars educated in East Asia, Europe, and North America. These authors, researching within their own linguistic and geographical purviews, are put into conversation with each other by nature of their chapters’ themes and historical overlaps. While there is little overtly comparative within the collection’s discrete contents, the complete text represents a coalitional endeavor to expand and globalize the academy. Impagination is a preface to future chapters in the story of global philological research, and I eagerly await the prospective multicultural academic alliances inspired by Impagination’s relatively diverse contributorship.