The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Printing a Changing Language

My research project entitled Printing a Changing Language: The Printing Press and the Standardisation of English can be found on the ETEC540 Wiki. The following video gives a great but short overview of the topic I attempted to tackle.


October 31, 2009   No Comments

William Blake and the Remediation of Print

One might be inclined to view William Blake’s illuminated books as throwbacks to mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. Yet they should rather be understood as “remediating” older media. According to Bolter (2001, p. 23), remediation occurs when a new medium pays homage to an older medium, borrowing and imitating features of it, and yet also stands in opposition to it, attempting to improve on it. In the case of Blake’s illuminated books, one of the older media being remediated was the mediaeval illuminated manuscript, but another medium being remediated was the printed book, which in Blake’s time had already been in use for three centuries.

Blake adopted the way in which the richly illustrated texts of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts combined the iconic and the symbolic so that the former illumined meaning of the latter, the images revealing the spiritual significance of the scripture. Blake also seized upon an aspect of illuminated manuscripts which would later impress John Ruskin as well (Keep, McLaughlin, & Parmar, 1993-2000)—the way in which they served as vehicles for self-expression. The designs of manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Book of Lindisfarne, for instance, reflected the native artistic styles of Ireland and Northumbria and often depicted the native flora and fauna of those lands as well. Blake also adopted some of the styles and idioms of illustration found in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, producing images in some cases quite similar to ones found in mediaeval scriptures and bestiaries (Blunt, 1943, p. 199). It seems that he also embraced the idea, embodied in the creation of illuminated manuscripts, that the written word can be something sacred and powerful and that it is therefore something to be adorned with gold and lively colours.

Blake’s illuminated books broke with the medium of mediaeval manuscripts mainly by virtue of that which they adopted from the medium of the printed book. Blake produced his illuminated books first by making copper plates engraved with images and text, deepening these engravings with the help of corrosive chemicals. He then used inks to form impressions of the plates on sheets of paper, often colouring the impressed images further with watercolour paints (Blake, 1967, p. 11-2). His use of the copper plates and inks bore similarities to the use of movable type and ink to create printed books. For many years it was believed that, despite this similarity, Blake developed his illuminated books partly as a reaction against the mass production of books, hearkening back to the methods of mediaeval craftsmen – specifically the artists who produced illuminated manuscripts –  who created unique items rather than mass produced articles. Consequently, it was believed that after he produced the copper plates for the illuminated books he created only individual books on commission. This belief, first championed by 19th century writers who claimed William Blake as a predecessor (Symmons, 1995), has recently been overturned, however, by the work of Joseph Viscomi. As a scholar and printer who attempted to physically reproduce the methods that Blake employed to create his illuminated books, Viscomi concluded that Blake mass produced these books in small editions of about ten or more books each (Adams, 1995, p. 444).

The primary way in which the illuminated book was meant to improve on the printed book did not lie in the avoidance of mass production, but rather in the relation between the image and the word. In printed books, engraved images could be included with the text, but as the text had to be formed with movable type the image had to be included as something separate and additional (Bolter, 2001, p. 48). In Blake’s illuminated books, in contrast, the written word belonged to the whole image first engraved on the copper plate and then transferred to paper. It participated in the imaginative power of the perceived image, rather than just retaining a purely conceptual meaning. As with the text of mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, the words in Blake’s illuminated books often merge the iconic and the symbolic (Bigwood, 1991). For example, in plate 22 of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the description of the devil’s speech trails off into a tangle of diabolical thorns. Furthermore, the words are produced in the same colours used in the images to which they belong, and partake in their significance—light watercolours being used in the first edition of the joyous Songs of Innocence and dark reticulated inks being used in the gloomier Songs of Experience (Fuller, 2003, p. 263). As John Ruskin later observed, this ability to use colour in the text of illuminated books made it a form of writing that uniquely expressed its creator’s imagination (Ruskin, 1888, p. 99).

Like several other artists of his time, Blake was disturbed by the mechanistic and atomistic conception of nature first put forward by the ancient philosopher Democritus and then later revived around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by natural philosophers. This was the conception of nature as consisting of atoms in an empty void operating in accordance with mechanistic laws. Blake saw this as connected to the type of rationalism that would impose strict laws of reason on the mind and imprison the divine creative power of the imagination. Like others who opposed the mechanistic and atomistic worldview, Blake was particularly repelled by the mechanistic account of colour offered by Isaac Newton, voicing his objection to “Newton’s particles of light” (Blake, 1988, 153). It was thought that such an account treated colour in isolation from the power of the imagination to which it was naturally connected. It was also seen as severing colour from the living spirit of nature—the poet Goethe famously offering a complex alternative theory of colour which saw it as the result of a dynamic interaction of darkness and light.

For Blake, the printing press would at the very least be symbolic of the mechanistic an atomistic view of the world, the words in the printed text no longer partaking in the power of the imagination and the visible image but rather consisting of atoms of movable type and lying separated by voids of empty space.  The primacy of the imagination would be better served by the medium of illuminated books, where the image did not only illuminate the conceptual meaning of the word but also subsumed the word and imparted a deeper significance to it. The imagination was of central importance for Blake, who was a professional engraver as well as a poet, and for whom the medium of the image was a more fundamental part of his life and work than the written word (Storch, 1991, 458).

The ability to mass produce texts in which the image was primary and the written word secondary would have implications for literacy and education insofar as it could widely disseminate works that encouraged imaginative and perceptual understanding over strictly conceptual thought. While the illuminated book as such never became a widespread medium, some of the principles involved in its remediation of the illuminated manuscript and the printed book survived in the medium of the comic book and the graphic novel, which could also be said to realize some of its implications. These works were also mass produced and also differed from the printed book through the relation between the word and the image. For example, the way in which the symbolic word is made to partake in the imaginative power of the iconic image can be seen in the development of comic books in Britain. Early 20th century British comic books generally consisted of rows of images without words, each image having a block of text below it. When comic books adopted the style that introduced speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and sound effects into the image itself, the words became part of the action.

The illuminated book can also be seen as a precursor of hypertext and its remediation of the printed word, specifically insofar as the image in hypertext is coming to dominate the written word (Bolter, 2001, p. 47). In this regard, hypertext could also be said to be carrying through the implications that illuminated books posed for education and literacy. This is not to say that there are not significant differences between these media, of course. Creators of hypertext may look to the illuminated book for inspiration but leave behind the more laborious aspects of the medium, such as the use of copper plates and corrosive chemicals. This may be seen as both an improvement and a loss. One feature of the illuminated book absent in hypertext is the close connection between the work and the bodily act of creating it. As Carol Bigwood observes (1991, p. 309), reading Blake’s illuminated books is a perceptual experience in which we sense the movements of Blake’s hand and the rigidity of the copper on which the image was first made. So while the illuminated book remediates the printed word it may itself be remediated by hypertext.


Adams, H. (1995). Untitled [Review of the book Blake and the idea of the book]. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53(4), 443-444.

Bigwood, C. (1991). Seeing Blake’s illuminated texts. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49(4), 307- 315.

Blake, W. (1988). Selected writings. London: Penguin.

—–. (1967). Songs of innocence and of experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1794).

Blunt, A. (1943). Blake’s pictorial imagination. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 6, 190-212.

Bolter, J. D. (2001) Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fuller, D. (2003). Untitled [Review of the book William Blake. The creation of the songs: From manuscript to illuminated printing]. Review of English Studies, 54(214), 262-264.

Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (1993-2000). John Ruskin, William Morris and the Gothic Revival. The Electronic Labyrinth. Retrieved from

Ruskin, John. (1888). Modern Painters (Vol. 3). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Storch, Margaret. (1996). Untitled [Review of the books Blake and the idea of the book & Blake, ethics, and forgiveness]. Modern Language Review, 91(2), 458-459.

Symmons, Sarah. (1995). Untitled [Review of the book Blake and the idea of the book]. British Journal of Aesthetics, 35(3), 308-9.

October 28, 2009   No Comments

Bada-Bing! The Oxford English Dictionary Taps into Internet Culture

When I think about standardization of language, my first thought is to refer to the dictionary. Sam Winston, a UK artist, has done some neat pieces that use dictionaries as a springboard for playing with language and text. What I like about this project is that the artist’s intent is to make art accessible – which in the context of this course relates back to the press as means to make literature accessible to the masses. Here is short video clip of the project Dictionary Story.

In the video clip, Winston mentions James Gleick’s article for the New York Times, Cyber-Neologoliferation as a source of inspiration. As this course has fueled my interest in language and technology, I decided to search this article out.

Before reading the article I did not have a clue what ‘neologoliferation’ meant. What I learned is that neologism refers to “a newly coined word that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language (Wikipedia, Neologism, para. 1). This word seems completely appropriate to use in the context of the Oxford English Dictionary and their pursuit to capture “a perfect record, perfect repository, perfect[ly] mirror of the entire [English] language (Gleick, 2006, para. 5).

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has a long history, dating back about a century and half, and has played an essential role in standardizing the English language. In his article, Gleick explores the workings of the dictionary today and how the online environment is changing the evolution of language. The OED has evolved its immense printed resource of 20 volumes in its second edition to a 3rd edition that now resides completely online. The Internet has not only been a vehicle that houses the dictionary but a tool that allows lexicographers to eavesdrop on the “expanding cloud of messaging in speech” that occurs in resources such as newspapers, online news groups and chat rooms (para. 2).

With these tactics for tapping into culture, the dictionary has moved from being a ‘dictionary of written of language’, where lexicographers comb through works of Shakespeare to find words, to one where ‘spoken language’ is the resource (para.12). Surprisingly, text messaging also serves as a source for new vocabulary. Beyond OED’s hunting and gathering processes, the general public can also connect with them to have a new word assessed for inclusion into the dictionary. The ‘living document’ of the dictionary now seems to require of the participation of the masses. With this, more and more colloquial language is being added to the dictionary (e.g. bada-bing).

The printing press worked to standardized spelling but according to Gleick (2006) with mass communication spelling variation is on the rise. With the Internet, OED is coming to terms with the boundlessness of language. In the past variations of the English language were spoken in many different pockets around the world. These variations still exist but now are more accessible through the Internet (Gleick, 2006). Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer at OED believes that the Internet transmits information differently than past vehicles for communication. He suggests that the ability to broadcast to the masses or communicate one-to-one is impacting the change in language. For OED, the ability to tap into a wide variety of online conversations affords a more accurate representation of word usage all over the world.

Standards in language help us to clearly communicate in a way that is commonly understood. This article makes me wonder, with all the slang being added to the dictionary, what will language look like in 50 years? 100 years? Will a new English language evolve? How will this affect spoken and written language? Will standards become more lax? With all these questions, OED becomes an important historical documentation of the evolution of the English language.


Gleick, J. (2006, November 5). Cyber-neologoliferation. New York Times. Retrieved October 18, 2009, from

Neologism. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia:

October 21, 2009   No Comments

Closing the gap or re-wiring our brains? Maybe both!

Ong states that “the electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality (p. 133).” Secondary orality is the way in which technology has transformed the medium through which we send and receive information. Ong includes various examples such as telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, and electronic technology (Ong, p. 132).

Ong discusses Lowry’s argument that the printing press, in creating the ability to mass-produce books, makes people less studious (Ong, p. 79).  Lowry continues by stating that “it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work (the pocket‐computer complaint once more), downgrading the wise man and wise woman in favor of the pocket compendium.  Of course, others saw print as a welcome leveler: everyone becomes a wise man or woman (Lowry 1979, pp. 31‐2). (Ong, p. 79).”

The World Wide Web has opened up an entirely new sense of “secondary orality”. Prior to the WWW, texts were primarily written by one or a small group of authors and were read by a specific audience.  Today, with the advent of Web 2.0 the underlying tenets of oral cultures and literate cultures are coming closer together.  Even within ETEC540 we are communicating primarily by text, but we are not entering our own private reading world, we are entering a text-based medium through which we can read and respond to each other’s blog posts (such as this post). In addition, we will contribute to a class Wiki where the information is dynamic and constantly changing. How then, is the WWW changing the way we interpret, digest, and process information?

The Internet has brought about a new revolution in the distribution of text.  Google’s vision of having one library that contains all of the world’s literature demonstrates that “one significant change generates total change (Postman, p. 18).”  Nicholas Carr, in his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Anthony Grafton in Paul Kennedy’s podcast “The Great Library 2.0” both make similar arguments about the Internet.  Carr points out, the medium through which we receive information not only provides information, but “they also shape the process of thought”.

Carr contends that the mind may now be absorbing and processing information “the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”  That is, information is no longer static; it is dynamic, ever changing, and easily accessible and searchable.  Carr gives the example that many of his friends and colleagues and friends in academia have noticed that “the more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

Comparably, Google’s attempt to digitize all the text on earth into a new “Alexandria” is certainly an ambitious project, but as Postman states, new technology “is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and that (Postman, 5).”  Some see the library as liberating, making an unfathomable amount of knowledge available to anyone with an Internet connection.  Others, such as Anthony Grafton, argue that reading text off the screen takes away from the romantic adventure that one gets from being the first to read at a rare book found in the library of a far-off country (Grafton in The Great Library 2.0).  Grafton also argues that the ability to search for key-words in electronic texts has created “on-time research” which has made academics and others work at a rapid pace, and fill in parts of work very late using Internet sources.  Carr sites other examples of academics who have lost the ability to read and absorb long texts, but instead have gained the ability to scan “short passages of text from many sources online.”

Lowry’s argument that, to some, print destroyed memory and debilitated the mind, while to others, print created equal accessibility to text has repeated itself with the advent of the Internet.  Carr and Grafton are both argue that instantaneous access to huge databases of information such as Google Books may be detracting from our ability to absorb texts.   That being said, Postman states “once a technology is admitted, it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is-that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open (Postman, p. 7).”  Thus, perhaps there is no point in arguing the negatives.  Whether it is Google or a different association that makes all the printed text in world available to us, it is the direction that technology is taking us and there will likely be nothing to stop it.  The question is, what will our societies and cultures look like after it is all done?   It will not be the world plus Library 2.0, but an entirely new world.


Ong, Walter, J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen.

Kennedy, Paul (host).  (August 24, 2009). Ideas. The Great Library 2.0. Podcast retrieved from

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Carr, Nicholas. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic. July/August 2008. Accessed September 30, 2009 from

October 2, 2009   2 Comments

Typefaces Galore

Typefaces Galore, originally uploaded by Kevin Lawver.

My name is Natalie Giesbrecht and I am a Distance Learning Program Development Specialist (aka the fancy name for instructional designer) for the online distance education unit at the University of Guelph. I work with faculty and instructors to design and develop online courses for degree students and adult learners. Prior to this, I guided a team of designers and copyright assistants to produce and distribute course materials. As for education, my degree is from the University of Guelph, where I studied photography, video, sculpture and art history.

Over the last 10 years I have developed a fascination for graphic design and typography. So when thinking about the words text and technology, for me the printing press naturally comes to mind. Thus the photo I choose depicts wood letterforms used in letterpress printing. Letterpress printing is certainly both an art and a craft – though now a dying skill.

Last summer I was lucky enough to get a tour of Coach House Press in Toronto, Ontario and an opportunity to try my hand at letterpress printing. From this experience I learned how much time and accuracy is needed in order to perfectly typeset a final printed product. Consideration is given to every aspect of each letter on a page. Most importantly quality checks on the finished pieces are always done to ensure that the reader has the best experience possible. With the speed and ease of computer publishing, I have a whole new appreciation for traditional ways of printing.

ETEC*540 is my 9th course! During this semester I am interested in exploring the convergence of old and new technologies and how this affects literacy – particularly printed books versus e-books. I am also interested in how new media, mobile and social technologies impact how we communicate – the way we read, write, find and understand information – and how this impacts online education.

With the variety of backgrounds and skill sets of all of us in this course, I think this will be a challenging and rewarding semester!

September 10, 2009   No Comments

Typesetting the old fashion way!

This is a blog posting from Jeff, one of your instructors. You’ve likely read some bio information about me in the course introduction already. I wanted to also post a blog entry here to get us all started with our class introductions.

This early 19th century photograph of typesetters nicely depicts the close relationship between literacy and technology. The two men sitting before rows of dirty lead type, have their hands covered in the industrial processes by which books or newspapers of the time were published. I now have in my kitchen a similar wood tray that was once used by typesetters such as these. It is an antique, an artifact from a different time when type had to be set by hand. It holds old corks and knick-knacks (and a lot of dust) and is a nice reminder of how dramatically can change the means by which we produce, reproduce and consume texts.

An historical perspective is essential in fast changing times such as these, particularly when we are perpetually told that all of our media are new, that books are going the way of the dodo, and that all of children are now digital natives of a country that we can only hope to visit with a visa and an accent. This course will challenge us to think about historical periods in which different technologies have impacted the ways by which people communicated with one another through different media. Hopefully some of the artifacts we encounter, as well as the social and cultural responses to these media, will help us to better analyze the changes currently underway in a world swept with digital media, convergence technologies and networked communications.

I look forward to exploring these issues with all of you in the course!


September 7, 2009   No Comments