The Queer Book

Course Organiser: Brooke Palmieri

The invention of moveable type is the greatest aberration in the history of communication. Its format obscures thousands of years of communication by clay and papyrus, and the rapid output of the press obscures prior book-making processes that were carefully controlled, lavishly constructed, and above all, sacred. No wonder the spread of mechanical printing processes has triggered constant debate over the centuries: is printing the work of God or of the devil? Is the multitude of new information useful, or an infectious plague? The purpose of this course is to re-evaluate the development of mechanical printing processes in terms of contingency rather than inevitability, strangeness rather than familiarity, and above all, in the moments when format and speedy dissemination are harnessed to disrupt normative culture. Consequently, the book and its attendant fields of bibliography and history of the book have much to benefit from the nascent field of queer theory, where concepts of ‘queerness’ might be used to think about books in relation to the bodies that produce and consume them, and in relation to the norms book culture might create and resist. Overall, by considering innovations upon book-making practices, as well as highlights in the history of book production from the blasphemous texts to contemporary artists’ books, the goal of the course is that students might never take collation for granted again. As an exercise in connecting past practice with the present, and future, of the book, students will have the opportunity to explore collections at the V&A, as well as within activists collections at the Feminist Library in Elephant and Castle, the George Padmore Institute in Finsbury Park, and finally, the working printing studio at the London Centre for Book Arts. Between its aberrant origins, and its use as an activist tool including the LGBTQ+ movement, the printed book has always been queer.

Course Outline


1 Introduction to the basics of History of the Book and Bibliography
2 Queering history and the application of queer theory to the past

Tuesday: The Early Modern Book

3 The invention of moveable type: divine art or infernal machine?
4 The body and the book: when ideas of sexuality and textuality converge
5 Thinking outside the book: pamphlets, broadsides, and the plague of early modern information

Wednesday: The Industrial Book

6 The Rise of the Novel in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: A Queer Form
7 Censorship, Scandal, Pornography
8 Responses to industrialisation: William Blake’s illuminated books

Thursday: The Artist’s Book

9 19th Century Aesthetics, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the revival of handpress printing
10 Dada, Surrealism, and the books of the artistic fringe
11 The Artist’s Book: From underground to center stage

Friday: The Activist’s Book

12 “This Book is an Action”: Social Movements and their publications
13 The Future of the Book: Zines, DIY Publication, and the environmental case for printing more and digitising less

Outcomes for Students

  • An overview of key concepts in the field of book history and bibliography, and how they relate to queer theory and media theory.
  • A grasp of the technologies behind book production as they developed after the invention of moveable type, and the historical and cultural debates surrounding those technologies as they relate to beliefs on individuality and sexuality.
  • An understanding of how the printed book interrelates to manuscript material and archival research, focussing on works created and preserved by minority groups whose material histories are sometimes made all the more difficult to reconstruct by their marginal, often erased, status. Above all, the application of queer theory, a deconstructive theory that seeks to understand the origins of oppression on account of ‘deviance’ from norms, helps to generate a “history of the book from below”, rather than reinforcing the canon of books that typically have dominated the field of research.
  • An appreciation of how form interacts with content in printed books, and the social, political, and cultural contexts that underpin this interaction.
  • An opportunity to compare historical knowledge with present day awareness of artists who work in the medium of the book, as well as knowledge of the places in London (print studios, binderies, self-publishing centres and artistic collectives) where this work is still carried on. “Queering” is a very recent turn within the academy, and the book is only truly “queered” by those who self-consciously consider their contemporary practice as such. Students will be encouraged to consider the ethics of using “queer” as a term retro-fitted to historical subjects.
  • An opportunity to work with materials that are not yet easily available in institutional libraries, but exist in small, activist- and volunteer-run archives and libraries around London (the Feminist Library, New Beacon Books, London Centre for Book Arts, etc). 

Recommended Introductory Reading 

This is a select bibliography for you to choose from.

Aarons, Phillip, and Bronson, A.A. Queer Zines Vol 1 and 2 (New York: Printed Matter, 2014).
Baron, Sabrina Alcorn, Lindquist, Eric N., and Shevlin, Eleanor F. Agent of Change: PRint Culture Studies after Elizabeth L Eisenstein (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007).
Bentley, G. E., “Blake’s Heavy Metal: The History, Weight, uses, Cost, and Makers of His Copper Plates.” University of Toronto Quarterly 76, no. 2 (2007).
Blair, Ann. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (NEw Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
Casper, Scott E. Groves, Jeffrey D., Nissenbaum, Stephen W. and Winship, Michael, eds. A History of the Book in America: Volume 3: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
Carlson, Evan Edwin. Outrageous Pamphleteers: A HIstory of the Communications company 1066-1967. Ma Thesis.
Clay, Stephen and Philips, Rodney. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980,(New York Public Library: Granary Books, 1998).
Darnton, Robert. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).
Darnton, Robert. “What is the History of Books?” Daedalus 111.3 (1982) 65-83.
Darnton, Robert. Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014).
Davis, Lennard J. Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
Dean, Tim. “Introduction: Pornography, Technology, Archive” Porn Archives (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014).
Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995).
Eaves, Morris.  The Counter-arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Eisenstein, Elizabeth. Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West from First Impressions to the Sense of an Ending (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
Essick, Robert. William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Fiore, Quentin, and McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam Books, 1967).
Fleming, Juliet, Sherman, William, and Smyth, Adam. “The Renaissance Collage: Toward a New History of Reading,” Special Issue, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 45.3 (2015).
Galloway, Alexander R., Thacker, Eugene, and Wark, Mckenzie. Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Goldberg, Jonathan and Menon, Madhavi. “Queering History” PMLA 120.5 (Oct., 2005), pp. 1608-1617.
Harker, Jaime and Konchar Farr, Cecilia. This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
Hogan, Kristen. The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
John, Adrian. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Masten, Jeffrey. Textual Intercourse; Collaboration, Authorship and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Masten, Jeffrey. Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
McKenzie, D.F.  Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Pettegree, Andrew. The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (London: Yale University Press, 2014).
Price, Leah. How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2012).
Raymond, Joad. Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Robinson, Franklin A. “Queering the Archive”, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 1.2 (2014) 195-199.
Stein, Donna. “When a Book is More than a Book,” in Artists’ Books in the Modern Era 1870-2000: The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, ed. Robert Flynn Johnson (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2001), 17-45.
Stoler, Ann. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Brooke Palmieri studied English and History for her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, but it was working at the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts during that time that really shaped her interest in the history of the book. After completing her Masters in Early Modern English Literature at Oxford in 2010, she entered the antiquarian book trade. Since 2013, she has been working on her PhD at UCL. Her project, "Compelling Reading: The Circulation of Quaker Texts 1650-1700", details the archiving and publication habits of Quakers and the influence of those habits on the transatlantic exchange of ideas at the end of the 17th century. She is also editor of Printing History, the journal of the American Printing History Association.