Review: Christine Jacobson on Anthony Grafton’s “Inky Fingers”

A famous portrait of Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein hangs in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre. Wearing a velvet robe and a pitch-black biretta cap, Erasmus stands erect, eyes cast downward as he puts his commentary on Saint Mark’s Gospel in Paraphrases on the New Testament to paper. His left hand, adorned with four jeweled rings, rests on his working manuscript. Holbein’s portrait depicts the sixteenth-century scholar at work: solitary, serene, and chic. This idealized portrayal of the early modern academic is upended in Anthony Grafton’s Inky Fingers, which reveals the messy, painstaking, and even back-breaking work behind the period’s greatest intellectual innovations. Engaging both intellectual history and the history of the book as an object, Grafton’s ambitious work traces the labor of printers, proofreaders, compilers, translators, and historians to tell the story of early modern knowledge production.

The volume’s bread-and-butter consists of close readings of correspondence, marginalia, and notebooks, through which Grafton shows the “eye-stinging” and “hand-cramping” nature of early modern scholarly work. Some of the eye-stinging, at least, came from Renaissance humanism’s project of deciphering and recovering classical texts from ancient manuscripts. In chapter three, Grafton narrates the invention of paleography, or the study of deciphering and dating historic manuscripts, by analyzing correspondence that the seventeenth-century French Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon conducted with dozens of libraries across Europe. Mabillon requested traced copies of Latin manuscripts from hapless librarians and issued detailed instructions on how to do it. “After the paper is put on top of the writing, you have to sketch the writing, as it is in the manuscript, with pen and ink,” wrote one of Mabillon’s associates in a request for a copy, with an added warning to make sure the paper was properly stretched. Such instructions helped to ensure as close a facsimile of the original manuscript as possible. Even the tracing paper itself, Grafton recounts, was produced through the intensely physical —and repugnant—process of rubbing the amniotic membrane of a cow’s embryo or the pericardial sac of an ox with linseed oil, turpentine, or pork fat. A further nested instance of physicality in books comes in the form of marginalia found by Grafton in a seventeenth-century recipe for making tracing paper which recommends storing the paper “in a portfolio and in urine” to fend off worms. Such interlinear notes were not without their snark. When the text suggests “beef pericardium” (the membrane of a cow’s heart) as the base material for tracing paper, a note below it in a different hand begs to differ: “completely useless!”

Though the level of detail can be dizzying, the book’s scope is impressive. Grafton’s bibliophilic odyssey takes readers from the Vatican Library, to a fledgling German settlement in Pennsylvania, across the pond to Lambeth Palace in London, and inside some of the busiest print shops of Italy and Northern Europe. The first three chapters show the physical, painstakingly-detailed labor of the press to be inseparable from the mental efforts of scholars; he describes authors supervising the publication of their latest work at the press alongside correctors employed to proofread difficult texts in a variety of languages. In fact, the collision of these worlds is captured neatly in a seventeenth-century wood engraving reproduced on the book’s cover: men in doublets and ruff collars argue over proofs while workmen in simpler dress set type or prepare paper for the press nearby. Though the clothing sets the craftsmen apart from the scholars, they work closely together in tight quarters. No one, Grafton points out, could escape without inky fingers.

Tell a friend about Book Post
Subscribe, Receive free updates, Befriend, Follow
Help build a connected world through reading

In the book’s middle chapters, Grafton turns to compilation—how scholars found, recorded, and organized excerpts from other texts, often making use of notebooks that Grafton describes as “epistemic machines” and modern scholars more often refer to as “commonplacing.” Commonplace books were notebooks in which scholars collected quotes from different texts, sometimes organizing them around a common theme, other times letting the trail of their reading take on a more idiosyncratic pattern. Grafton reserves an entire chapter for Francis Daniel Pastorius’s “magnificently weird” practices of storing and indexing his commonplace excerpts in labyrinthine ways that depended on multilingual wordplay. Pastorius’s efforts culminated in an immense notebook referred to as the Bee-Hive, which contains poetry, proverbs, recipes, theological citations, and his thoughts on religious and political matters linked by verbal associations decipherable only to true polyglots. (All three volumes of the nearly five-hundred-page manuscript have been digitized and made available online by the University of Pennsylvania.)

The final chapters of Inky Fingers are more firmly rooted in classical historiography and look at the ways early modern scholars marshalled previously neglected material to advance new arguments, such as Spinoza’s use of first-century Alexandrian accounts boldly to establish Ezra, and not Moses, as the primary author and compiler of the Old Testament. The thread connecting these themes is the patience and resilience required of all who put ink to paper in pursuit of knowledge.

As you may have guessed, Inky Fingers is not a work of popular history: it assumes familiarity with academic scholarship on early modern intellectual history and history of the book. (Those looking for a more accessible introduction to book history of this period should start with Sarah Werner’s Studying Early Printed Books 1450-1800: A Practical Guide.)Grafton doesn’t spill much ink on the contributions of women either—a disappointing choice given how much more we now know about the role of women in print shops. (For this, readers should consult Helen Smith’sGrossly Material Things: Women and Book production in Early Modern England or the catalogue for the 2019 Grolier Club exhibition Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection.) Nevertheless, Inky Fingers offers a panoramic view of labor and knowledge-making between 1500 and 1800. With it, Grafton upends idealized understandings of early modern scholarship and blurs distinctions between the physical and mental labor that made the remarkable works of this period possible.


Christine Jacobson is Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library.


Book Notes
The perils facing local journalism came into sharper focus this week with the publication of Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, by former New York Times public editor and current Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan began her career at the Buffalo News, and a salient anecdote from Buffalo keeps emerging in discussions of the book: in the “news deserts” of rural New York the challenger for local Representative Chris Collins’s seat was unable to beat him even though Collins had recently been indicted on insider trading charges; those out of reach of the Buffalo News were unaware of the indictment. Even before the pandemic struck, the prognosis for local news was dire; in February alone the once-mighty newspaper chain McClatchy declared bankruptcy and the new corporate masters at the Tribune papers signalled impending cost-cutting. Then the pandemic hit, taking a huge bite out of what remained of local advertising, especially dependent on now-struggling industries like travel, entertainment, and auto sales, even as it reminded readers how vitally they depended on detailed reporting on local conditions. Grateful readers stepped up to subscribe to their local outlets, but the new income was not enough to compensate for the hemorrhaging of advertising dollars. Many observers have noted that readers are lulled by the durability of a few big national players into thinking all is well in journalism: a 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 71 percent of people surveyed believed their local media were doing just fine.

Journalism took another hit this week when Senator Tom Cotton, recently famous for a New York Times editorial calling for federal military response to people protesting the murder of George Floyd, which resulted in a staff shake-up at the Times’s editorial page, introduced legislation that would withhold funding from schools teaching the Times’s “1619” project examining of the legacy of slavery. The project first appeared as a dedicated issue of the Times magazine, with an accompanying podcast and curriculum, and won its prime mover, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize. Earlier this month Oprah Winfrey announced that her production company would be adapting it for screens. The project, by design, had inspired robust debate, some illuminating, some mean-spirited. The irony seems as thick as the tear gas in Portland that the Senator whose controversial editorial was among the prompts leading a group of intellectuals recently to sign a letter supporting “free speech” is now calling for its suppression.

Other signs this week, though, indicated that the hands at the controls may be changing. Lisa Lucas, whose work as the executive director of the National Book Foundation we have celebrated here in Book Post, was named publisher of the Random House imprints Pantheon and Schocken, prompting a front-page story in the New York Times about people of color assuming positions of power in the publishing industry. (Lucas was also behind the Black Artists for Freedom letter published in June.) The same week she announced a collaboration with the Mellon Foundation (also headed by an African American woman, poet Elizabeth Alexander, whose good works we have celebrated) of a Literary Arts Emergency Fund to support nonprofit literary organizations threatened by the pandemic. Said Lucas, “The literary arts field is one of the most underfunded in culture and therefore especially vulnerable.” (For another take on gatekeepers and power, the pan-African magazine African Arguments talked this week with the nominees for the influential Caine Prize of Africa literature.)

Women, and women of color, seem to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting lately when it comes to tending to our ailing infrastructure of ideas. Publishers Weekly published a follow-up report on the #PublishingPaidMe conversation, which exposed discrepancies in advances paid to white and non-white writers. The report observes that a publishing advance is not a fee—it’s a projection of a book’s earnings, but also an expression of a publishers’ commitment to getting the book into readers’ hands. Low advances signal a lack of confidence in publishers’ ability to sell certain books, a lack of confidence which can as likely reflect on the publisher as the author. At the National Book Foundation and the Mellon Foundation Lucas and Alexander have been looking more deeply—not just at how and to whom we market books, but how we broaden readership itself, how we create a culture of reading to which more and more people can feel connected. Heres’s where the real work of nourishing ideas is happening, not in the finger-waving and stand-taking, seems to us.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Thank you for your subscription! As a subscriber you can read our full archive at bookpostusa.com. Please help us spread the word about Book Post: your subscriptions keep us going, supporting writers and books and reading across America. Coming soon: Mona Simpson on Jenny Offill, Ian Frazier on lists.

Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center, in Ypsilanti, Michigain, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. (Read about our partnership here!) We’ll send a free one-year subscription to any reader who spends more than $50 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Image: From the cover of Inky Fingers by Anthony Grafton