At the age o’ 22, I flew o’er the ocean blue… to pursue a full-time MA in the History of the Book at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of English Studies. And clearly poetry was not my speciality.
During my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, I had become enamoured with illuminated manuscripts, and I was set on writing my MA dissertation on anything medieval. Even before the Medieval Book classes began, I had devoured the reading list, and I regularly sought recommendations for further reading. Of course, those teaching the course excitedly listed titles for me to pick up at the Senate House Library.
Further supporting my interest in medieval manuscripts, my course tutor connected me with the exhibition team at Two Temple Place, and by November I found myself preparing all the medieval manuscripts and early printed books for display in Two Temple Place’s ‘Cotton to Gold’ exhibition. There I was, thumbing through priceless medieval manuscripts teeming with illustration and, in some cases, literally covered in gold leaf. Yet, as exciting as it was to be working with the materials that I had literally crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be near, I found myself drawn to another book: an early twentieth-century journal about some bloke’s trip to Peru. Bound in full-fledged llama skin.
Figure 1: The llama book, now held at Towneley Hall (http://www.burnley.gov.uk/residents/towneley-hall).
I quickly took on the task of transcribing this book. Throughout the rest of the year, I would spend my free time working page by page to unravel the stories the book held. While this was no medieval manuscript, I grew so passionate about the llama book that my MA peers still tease me about it.
As the year went on, and classes continued, I found myself exposed to more things that piqued my interest: things that had little to do with the Middle Ages. For our Textual Scholarship course, for example, I wrote a paper about computer-generated poetry. For our Printed Book course, I wrote about an underground publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night produced and disseminated in Soviet-dominated Poland. Come time for the final dissertation, I had drastically adjusted my dissertation topic to accommodate a new love that I had been introduced to during the IES’ London Book Trade Internship: 1960s/70s American counterculture. My dissertation supervisor and course tutor, however, took it in stride, supporting me throughout the entire writing process despite how – ahem – quirky my topic was.
All of our dissertations highlighted the diversity of our class’ interests. We had dissertations on Orwell, witchcraft pamphlets, the thirteenth century book trade, digital literature… And each of our supervisors challenged us to write dissertations that pushed us to become better academics and resulted in work we could brag about.
While we all worked hard in school, we never failed to make time to visit the many cafés, burger joints, and pubs near Senate House. Those in the course became quick friends, bound together by a love of books, and we’d spend hours drinking overpriced beer and bouncing paper ideas off each other. Occasionally, we’d even trek to Surrey, where one of our peers (and her delightful dogs!) lived.
Figure 2: Three of the Book History girls (L-R: Pauline, Jess, and me) visiting Surrey, featuring Stig and Impi.
The academic and social opportunities associated with my time at the IES – including the range of courses, the Book Trade Internship, and the school’s affiliations with other organisations across the city – allowed me to explore various theoretical and practical aspects of book history in a supportive environment. The Textual Scholarship class in particular opened my eyes to what would eventually become the subject of my PhD: algorithmic authorship.
As I grew evermore fascinated by Twitter bots and computer-generated texts, Dr Wim Van Mierlo served as a sounding board for ideas and a constant source of academic advice. Just over a year later, Dr Van Mierlo is one of my supervisors at Loughborough University, where I am pursuing a fully-funded PhD studentship in the Arts, English and Drama department. I’m looking at the future of the book, applying the book history basis I developed at the IES as a framework for my research.
Figure 3: Graduation with the gang (L-R: Janine, Ben, Pauline, Jess, Me, Cynthia)