How are the patterns of nature imprinted on the history of the book? These days, books are increasingly produced, consumed, and conserved within intricate networks of virtual labor that can obscure their materiality and render abstract the bodies that were pulped, liquefied, or otherwise harvested to make them. The emergence of “digital humanities” as a resource-rich scholarly discipline further encourages the sense of books as nodes, not in the sense of biological tissue, rather of hypertext and algorithm. And yet the language of our silicone archives—which speaks of “rot” and “decay” and even “death”—suggests the persistence of an older, organic sense of the nature of textuality.
My research in the history of material texts examines the relationship between the agricultural processes by which book materials were produced in medieval and early modern Europe, and the bibliographic and archival practices that structured contemporary book culture. The relative scarcity of these materials meant that for early scribes, librarians, even common readers—often forced produce their own vellum, from goat and sheep skins, and ink, from local plants and minerals—the earthly nature of books was ever-present fact. It is in this sense that we can speak of “ecologies” of material cultures of the book.