a set of practices, still operative but generally devalued in modern textual culture, that involve making books useful as material objects or artifacts, not just for reading or owning for their ideational content alone. The “use” of books in the era of early print has recently become a topic of substantial interest of both historians of reading and scholars interested in the materiality of literary works; but conceptions of utility, I would like to suggest, remain largely bound to modern categories, making room enough for texts but little for textual objects .
In the Renaissance, these practices included using books as filing cabinets in which to store or write legal documents, recipes, and the like; making desks and beds out of stacks of books; and conversely regarding furniture and walls as inscribable objects. The Renaissance book
was an object with multiple functions, none of which was fully determined by its text. It was a container, a writing tablet or notepad, and a veritable bookshelf all at once. The surviving evidence of reading habits and uses such as these puts pressure on the prevailing categories of book history and related literary-critical approaches that have perhaps been overly rigid in separating out utility and instrumentality from aesthetics and affectivity, and that have furthermore parsed intellectual from material utility—books as information, in other words, from books as objects or things .
Knight goes on to demonstrate that the words “furniture” and “furnishing” had broader applications then, applying to both material and intellectual objects in such a way as to cast in question our distinctions between them. He notes that this usage also reflected the physical place of books in the home. The tended to be scattered almost anywhere and everywhere. They had not yet assumed a conventional place, such as on the bookshelves that became common later.
Knight’s article raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship between the material book and its textual contents which makes it of interest here. But his discussion does not blend obviously with our category of “iconic” books. That is, we usually assume that books have become less iconic and more utilitarian over time as modern publishing has made them more ubiquitous and more disposable. Yet Knight’s description of book use in the Renaissance home suggests a less iconic view of books, one in which their “proper” place and use had not yet become so culturally defined.