ASMR and the Pleasures of Book History

What follows in this post is much more anecdotal than usual; it might also seem absurd or ridiculous next to my other Vade Mecum entries. But I’m very curious about a possible relationship between the pleasures of book history and a very strange physiological sensation that I’ve had since I was a child. If that sentence doesn’t daunt you, gentle reader, read on.

When I was in elementary school, I started getting this weird feeling in my head. It still happens now, but I was probably around the age of seven or eight when I first noticed it or started paying attention to it. Far from a painful headache, it was a warm, calming, tingling sensation that spread out from the crown of my head down my scalp and into my neck and spine. I had no idea why it happened, but as I got older and went through high school and college, I began to associate it — at least, in my own mind — with personal, one-on-one moments of detailed instruction, explanation, or directions. For instance, my second-grade teacher tracing her hand on paper to make a Thanksgiving turkey decoration would trigger the feeling. Or, my ninth-grade art teacher demonstrating a complex painting technique to me after class would bring it forward. I associated the feeling with learning and with my teachers, with quiet or whispered speaking, and with certain sounds, visuals, and thought patterns. Mainly, at school.

I remember attempting to explain this sensation to family and friends on multiple occasions, but no one could quite understand. In college, I spoke about it with one friend who claimed that she’d felt the same feeling too. (Please bear with me; I know this sounds strange.) This was really exciting for me to hear, but we lacked any kind of terminology to talk about it. Basically, we didn’t know what it was, so the fact that we both had it seemed more of a coincidence than anything else. I’ve since gone about my life, reading and writing here, watching hockey there, socializing with friends, and traveling whenever possible. But I’m frequently on the lookout for moments that trigger that weird, pleasurable sensation for which I had no point of reference or explanation.

Until yesterday, that is. I learned that I’m far from alone in experiencing what is known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. Wikipedia’s entry defines ASMR as “a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or cognitive stimuli.” The materials cited for this Wiki-entry are startlingly new, the earliest article having been published in February of 2012. Tracing my way through these news stories and a recent radio episode of This American Life, I listened to and read about others who experienced roughly the same perplexing sensation during childhood and the great difficulty of classifying, understanding, or even explaining it adequately to family and friends. The ASMR “community” online is actually quite substantial, as can be seen from hundreds and hundreds of YouTube videos of people – often, women, though not always – who play certain roles, whisper, speak in an explanatory manner, and use inanimate objects to create soft, soothing noises. The view-counts for these videos are staggering. As Andrea Siegel explains on This American Life, it might seem at first that these videos are sexual or pornographic, but they’re not; on the contrary, rather than arousal, they inspire a sense of peace, almost a stoner-like high.

As I learned about this and watched a couple of the trigger-videos, I immediately recognized my sensations, and I began to think about my love for books and the bibliographical threads of my research in graduate school. What if ASMR, I wondered, has some kind of connection to my deep interest in material books? My scholarship concerns Renaissance printing and bookmaking, and requires me to visit research libraries like the Newberry where I handle and study 400-year-old artifacts. These books often have roiled vellum bindings or exposed stitching jobs; the letters of the text have been stamped into the watermarked leaves in a very three-dimensional way; traces of readerly practice or use are visible in 16c or 17c marginalia. To these quiet, whispery reading rooms, I bring a set of developed, but hardly complete bibliographical methods that often depend on sequential instructions and great attention to physical detail. In fact, I can recall moments in my own bibliographical training in which I experienced ASMR, though I had no name for it at the time.  Could this research, let alone my general love for books and my own (unfortunately expensive!) book-collecting habits have any relationship to ASMR? I definitely know, now more than ever, that I experience this pleasurable brain-tingling. But is it possible that this sensation, triggered commonly by inanimate objects, whispered descriptions and instructions, sweet or particular smells, and certain mental connections, has something to do with my investments in bibliography and book history?

I will probably never be able to answer that question, but I find it deeply provocative. I also wonder how many other bibliographers or book historians out there experience ASMR, in or outside the archive. As my colleague Rebecca Fall has suggested recently in a NUDHL blog post, Renaissance reading involved a very sensory set of practices hardly limited to the visual; she wonders furthermore how this knowledge comes to bear on how we read in the 21st century. “When we read with our whole bodies, it seems,” she says, “we learn better—or at least I do.” I do as well, and scribble on any copy I get my hands on (barring the archive, that is). But while Fall is interested mainly in the tactile here, I wonder about how other sensations come into play when we do book history. And I wonder about how ASMR might offer some kind of increased incentive for bibliography and archival investigation. My research isn’t only interesting to me — it feels good.

If my isolated case still seems strange, I’ll conclude this post by pointing to some videos on YouTube. Hardly conclusive, this picture is meant mainly to be suggestive about ASMR and the pleasures of books. A good number of the role-playing videos, some created upon YouTube users’ requests, suggest that booksellers and librarians are common activators of ASMR. This particular clip features a young man playing the part of a librarian; his whispering, his accent, his explanations of the books’ content, and the page-turning sounds are designed to stimulate the sensation in viewers.  Another video simply shows a bookshelf, and the sounds of the books being taken down and perused by the video’s creator deliver the sensation. Here, a video creator rakes her fingernails against two books’ bindings; this clip has a place among many other “tapping and scratching” book videos. While contemporary books appear in many of these videos, some include older or rarer artifacts. For instance, in this video, which is nearly an hour long, the creator examines an 1892 edition of The Scarlet Letter with a very unstable, damaged binding and a 1907 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles.  “The Aberdine University Press, Limited,” whispers the reader-narrator at the end of the clip. The bibliographical accuracy of the whispered commentary in these videos could easily be criticized as lacking, and the notion underlying this post might seem equally absurd. However, I think that these clips speak to a broader and perhaps more consequential issue: a particular physiological sensation that we are only beginning to comprehend and its relationship to the world of books.


Printers’ Ornaments in Renaissance Books

I can admit already that this piece will be a little on the pedantic side and that it lacks a definitive conclusion; it’s meant to be provocative in that sense. But along the way I’ll make reference to a few unusual instances in the history of Renaissance books, and speculate about the commercial properties of title-pages and the ornaments, or woodcut illustrations, that often decorated them. I do this mainly to play out a passing curiosity.

Form affects meaning. This simple, yet powerful phrase echoes through the work of bibliographer and book historian D. F. McKenzie. In his essay “Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve,” McKenzie investigates this principle as it pertains to early printed books, and emphasizes the vast range of choices open to printers, textual content notwithstanding:

The printer-designer’s own vocabulary developed into an extraordinarily flexible one of types in their different designs as well as different sizes of the same face, paper in diverse weights, colour, quality and size, ink weak and strong, red and black, format, title page, frontispiece, illustrations diagrammatic, hieroglyphic and figurative, bulk, the structural divisions of volumes, ‘books,’ sections, section titles, chapters, paragraphs, verses, verse numbering, line measure, columns, interlinear, marginal and footnotes, running titles, pagination roman and arabic, headings, initial letters, head- and tailpieces, braces, rules, indentations, fleurons, epitomes, indexes, and, most important of all, blank white space. (217)

Here, McKenzie outlines many (although certainly not all!) possibilities available to early printers as they crafted a text into a consumable package for reading audiences. Often, the author played no part at all in this process. To put it very simply, copyright functioned differently during the early modern era, and intellectual property remained commonly with the printer rather than the author. This is not to say at all, however, that authors were never a part of the decision making process, and in some cases, we have records of the planning that went on between printers and authors.

One such case is the collaboration between Sir John Harington and his printer Richard Field during the production of Harington’s translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s immensely popular Italian epic, Orlando Furioso (1591). In a document that is now known as British Museum Additional 18920, Harington relays instructions to Field regarding the material delivery of his text (and this kind of thing is unusual):

Mr. Feeld I dowt this will not come in in the last page, and thearfore I wowld have immedyatly in the next page after the fynyshinge of this last booke, with some pretty knotte to set down the tytle, and a peece of the Allegory as followeth in this next page — I wowld hav the allegory (as allso in the appollogy and all the prose that ys to come except the table in the same printe that Putnams book ys. (quoted. in Galbraith, 29)

Harington clearly understands the importance of typeface for his translation, and moreover, he urges Field to use a certain type from another book familiar to him. Also, as Stephen Galbraith has recently commented, the “pretty knotte” refers to the a large printer’s ornament that separates the end of canto 46 and the title of the following section. You can see the final result in the image to the right, which is not an artifact I’ve examined but rather a scanned image of the Huntington copy available in Early English Books Online (EEBO).

So what does this mean? Well, first of all, we can deduce from Harington’s meticulous directions to Field that the design and arrangement of textual features, including but not limited to typefaces and printers’ ornaments, could constitute a critical part of the book-production process for Renaissance printers and authors alike. Whether it fell to the printer or was carefully decided by the author, the typographic arrangement of elements in printed books, and not just the text, resulted in something meaningful to readers.  The “pretty knotte” to the right is grotesque in its weave of vines, and it features a horned satyr-like figure in the center. At the end of Ariosto’s famous Italian epic, readers could quite possibly associate this ornament with something grotesque, continental, and Italianate. (Since this could stand for depravity to certain Englishmen, Harington defends his translation as morally acceptable.)

An experiment about printers’ ornamentsEdwardII(1594)After recently reading Jeffrey Masten’s article that recounts his discovery of an unknown copy of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in the Universitätsbibliotek Erlangen-Nürnburg (this kind of thing is also unusual), I’ve been thinking about the title page of this book. It was published in 1594 by Richard Robinson (who left his name off the title page), and it features a kind of printer’s “pretty knotte” on the title page.

The photo to the left is not a reproduction of the copy Masten found, but rather the already-known copy (thought to be unique) in the Zentralbibliothek of Zurich, Switzerland (microfilmed, and available in EEBO). I want to call attention to the ornament featured on the title page. It looked strangely familiar to me and led me to conduct a hasty search for the book where I thought I’d seen it before. Sure enough, after a little while, I found what seemed to be the same ornament in two books published in 1588. Both were issued from the English press of John Wolfe, a printer notorious for his rebellious habits and surreptitious printing of controversial Italian texts (often, for continental readers at the Frankfurt Book Fair). Wolfe had studied presswork on the continent, and was often accused of disorderly printing once he returned to England. A very annoyed Christopher Barker urged Wolfe in 1582 to “[l]eave your Machevillian devices, & conceit of your forreine wit, which you have gained by gadding from country to country, and tell me plainly, if you meane to deale like an honest man” (quoted in Hoppe, 246). Always the rebel, Wolfe didn’t care and kept on illegally printing books that Barker held under privilege.

Barker might mean something else by “devices,” but a number of researchers have identified and compiled the many woodcuts that adorn Wolfe’s title-pages. I list two instances of a particular example below, not from title-pages, but within two separate publications of 1588. On the left is the final recto of the dedication “al suo Monicchio” (to his monkey) in the first book of Pietro Aretino’s scandalous Ragionamenti, published in Italian by Wolfe. The book basically consists of sexualized dialogues between female speakers, and was considered extremely controversial among early English readers. Some have argued that it intensified English assumptions about Italy’s supposedly lascivious and luxurious culture. On the right is the end of A Caueat for France, vpon the present euils that it now suffereth, translated from the French by Edward Aggas. I know much less about this text but the title is indeed suggestive. Wolfe’s ornament is not identical to Robinson’s, and this is important to acknowledge. But it is certainly similar.

Wolfe Books

The reason why I thought at first that this similarity of printers’ ornaments might be significant is that Edward II raises the issue of Italian and French culture and their ambiguous – even dangerous – place in English society. Put very simply: on the one hand, the Continent stood for refined culture and aesthetic excellence, but on the other it suggested all kinds of devious sexual and political connotations. Gaveston, King Edward’s “favourite,” arrives from France in Act I and has a keen preference for Italian masques and courtly entertainment. (Curious readers at a London bookstall in 1594 would learn this only two pages into the play-text.) He later reveals his Italianate inclinations further in his clothing and in his speech. The envious English barons, wary of the intimacy between Gaveston and the King, call Gaveston “wicked” and a “peevish Frenchman.” By killing him, they silence the unruly sexual threat of the Continent in their effort to purify England and return it to order for the good of all English people. According to this interpretation, Marlowe thus affords a great deal of attention to French and Italian culture as a threat to the Barons’ Englishness in this play, and I wanted to find out if Robinson’s ornament, which somewhat resembles the one that appears in John Wolfe’s Aretino and the Caueat for France, could suggest the use of this “pretty knotte” as a kind of commercial adjunct to the play’s textual content. Even if it isn’t identical, I wondered if the similarity could suggest something important about the play’s initial reception on the book market.

A dead end? Not much is known about Robinson. Few records bearing his name survive, and he sometimes got in trouble for disorderly printing. After an admittedly hasty search through EEBO for this ornament accompanying Robinson’s publications, I found 13 that appear between 1587 and 1597. (It merits saying that this is among those texts that have survived.) This ornament was not one of Robinson’s usual printing-house ornaments. It seems he favored placing it at the end of a dedicatory epistle or preliminary address; only in four cases does it show up on a title page. Two in 1590, one in 1591, and one in 1594, the last of these being Marlowe’s play. Yet, the conclusions here are disappointing. There is arguably nothing special about Robinson’s use of the ornament in 1594, and nothing substantial to suggest that it represented anything continental or “Italianate” to a designer or reader. Moreover, as I said before, Robinson’s ornament is subtly, but importantly distinct from Wolfe’s, and Wolfe does not use it on his title pages (at least, not the ones I mention here). There is therefore no clear link between these ornaments or even these printers to speak of, and what we have is essentially a kind of negative result (at least at the moment). Printer’s ornaments were sometimes random, then, and often had the practical purpose of holding up paper on the press to avoid an uneven print-job. But I bring up the issue because I want to suggest that this kind of approach might not always finish with such a dead end.

We face some questions, some of which have surely been posed recently by Juliet Fleming in terms of flower-devices (in effect, she is revising some of her older thoughts), but I want to rehearse a few of them here. What did printers’ ornaments mean in reference to a book’s or a play’s text? Did they have commercial properties, or could they entice prospective buyers somehow with “visible codes?” If so, were some printers more demonstrably aware of the commercial properties of ornaments? Can we prove this? How does this relate to genre (Fleming discusses sonnets)? How did these ornaments exchange hands on the book market? What does an ornament on a title page mean, as opposed to one at the end of a dedication? How were these “pretty knottes” different from head- or tailpieces, initial blocks, “flowers,” “acorns,” and other ornaments that fit somewhere between “text” and “illustration”? The Text Creation Partnership (TCP) has already begun to make the full texts of microfilmed and digitized EEBO records searchable, but the images are more tricky to navigate. As it becomes easier to electronically catalog and search through the ornaments that appear in early modern books, we are opened up to a range of new questions and possibilities for the study of early books and their paratextual materials.


For (much) further reading:

Fleming, Juliet. “Changed Opinions as to Flowers.” In Renaissance Paratexts, ed. Helen Smith and Louise Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. 48-64.

Galbraith, Steven K. “‘English’ Black-Letter Types and Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar.” Spenser Studies 23 (2008): 13-40.

Hoppe, Harry R. “John Wolfe, Printer and Stationer, 1579-1601.” The Library 4th ser. 14 (1933): 241-88.

Masten, Jeffrey. “Bound for Germany: Heresy, Sodomy, and a New Copy of Marlowe’s Edward II.” Times Literary Supplement 21 and 28 (2012): 17-19.

McKenzie, D. F. “Typography and Meaning: The Case of William Congreve.” 1981. Reprinted in Making Meaning: ‘Printers of the Mind’ and Other Essays. Ed. Peter D. McDonald and Michael F. Suarez, S.J. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2002. 198-236.

McKerrow, R. B., ed. A Dictionary of Printers and Booksellers in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of Foreign Printers of English Books 1557-1640. London: Bibliographical Society, 1910.