Exploring beneath the cover of a book

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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

22 April 2021

Related Study Areas

A new way to look at a book

Associate Professor Dr Roger Osborne has spent his career exploring the history and culture of writing, publishing, novels, magazines, and stories as they exist in different countries, different formats, and different eras.

What is a book? Traditionally, it’s something rectangular in shape, with a various amount of pages made of paper, which contain a printed story separated into paragraphs, chapters, and even volumes. Or maybe it’s a story that has those same paragraphs and chapters but exists as letters on a glowing screen animated to look like a page turning when you swipe.

A book can be a work of fiction, or an academic textbook, or the manual for your car. A book can be long, short, true, fake, physical, digital, old, new, reinvented, traditional, contemporary, riveting, boring, a family heirloom, a waiting room staple, an expose, a memoir, a banned piece of history, and a thousand other things.

The truth is, a ‘book’ is hard to define. This ambiguity of what we mean when we say ‘book’ has sparked the curiosity of many scholars in recent years. There is enough research and theory and ideas surrounding the field of literature and book history that it could take a lifetime to sort through it all.

It may not be quite a lifetime, but Roger Osborne has spent many years learning, researching, discovering, and teaching the idea of ‘books’. It’s a journey that requires one to understand that a ‘book’ is a multi-layered, multi-faceted, complex thing.

“There are so many questions around a topic like this,” Roger says. “What is a book? How does it move from one place to another? How do certain books survive over time? How do you define a book in regards to its physical form? How do you define a book in terms of content? Answering those questions can bring you to a deeper understanding of written works.”

To reach that deeper understanding, Roger says there are four main areas for us to look at: reading, authorship, publishing, and technology.

What is reading?

The act of reading is as equally hard to define as ‘books’.

Reading may initially start as an isolated, solitary activity, but can become a collaborative or community action when we engage with others about written works. Reading can be a casual activity for entertainment, or it can be an act of personal growth and learning, or it can have a clear goal such as research and discovery.

Identifying the influence that reading has on the existence of a written piece is important in understanding the complexity of written works. Reading is essentially the reception of a written piece. This means that as many ways as a piece can be read, there are just as many ways that a piece can exist. To one reader the piece will be one thing and to another reader the piece can be something else entirely, depending on the context, experiences, mindset and even education of each reader.

“We can think of reading as a cultural moment,” Roger says. “There are particular moments when reading happens and it happens for particular reasons. When we read, for whatever reason, we hold a material object, but on that object are words that need to be decoded. It’s the act of decoding that has an impact on a reader. And however they decode is unique to that reader, specifically, so the resulting impact is unique to that reader, as well.”

Reading is an act unique to humanity, and it is unique to each human. It can’t be simply defined. Although we can see someone reading and identify their action as ‘reading’, we can’t easily identify how they are reading or why they are reading or what their version of reading is compared to our own. Just as a book can contain a thousand different things, it can be read a thousand different ways, with a thousand different impacts.

Although reading seems like a simple thing — something that we teach to children and that we do every day — a deeper look with a new perspective shows that it is not as simple as we may think. “When these acts become complicated the more that we think about them, they become worthy of study,” Roger says.

“Reading is a human act and it helps us to know more about ourselves and about each other when we break it down, ask questions, and seek answers that may be different to our own. Studying literature, writing, reading and publishing is studying humanity.”

JCU  Associate Professor Roger Osborne

The written word, whether it’s in the form of genre books, textbooks, history books, or catalogues, or any other form of record, is intertwined with human history. Even through oral retellings, we remember our history and our rich humanity through what we choose to keep and pass on. When we approach reading with this in mind, we learn more about ourselves and others.

“I had a student once who said ‘this is making me really uncomfortable’ as we were learning about the differences in reading,” Roger says. “He was being asked to look at books in a completely new way. He was being asked to consider how a book or a story will always contain the same words, but can also be read differently each time it is read.”

If you’re exploring new ways of reading, and it’s making you uncomfortable, that probably means you’re doing it right. That means you’re growing.

What is authorship?

Just as there are different kinds of books and ways of reading, there are different kinds of authors.

Some authors write anonymously and produce content that isn’t associated with a specific or known person. At the other end of the spectrum are celebrity authors, whose work can’t really be separated from them because their readers know them, or at least their public persona. And in between are authors of all languages, public appearances, ages, ethnicities, and types of work.

“The idea of authorship is dynamic,” Roger says. “From one perspective, it depends on the cultural position of the author, of how well they are known by their readers. An anonymous author’s book can be read for what it is, but if the author is an active participant in their culture, then the way their book is read and received changes.”

In this sense, authorship is directly related to how the reader reads a written piece. For example, if the reader knows that the author has a certain political view or is vocal about specific social commentaries or if what they know of the author’s personal life is strangely similar to that of a character’s, then the way they read the piece is influenced by their understanding of the author. Whereas if the author is unknown — either to the public or just to a certain reader — they will likely read the piece with less influence on their experience.

Culture has a similar influence on a piece. The cultural association of an author, or the cultural context of a book, or the cultural experience of the reader, can change the way a written piece is received and how it exists in that culture.

“When a work enters the public sphere, there are multiple voices that influence it,” Roger says. “Reading and authorship as well as publishing and technology each contribute to what defines a work. And once the work is active in that public, cultural sphere, it becomes a voice of influence over particular topics as well.”

A black and white image of an old printing press
A modern printing press
Left: An early printing press. Right: A modern printing press.

Publishing and technology

Publishing and technology go hand-in-hand.

Publishing can be quite narrowly defined as the process of having a work approved and brought into the public sphere, or the realm of reading. Technology is both the form and the process by which the written words are made physical. Each process supports the other. Each process is integral to the existence of written works.

“There’s a history of authorship, a history of reading, and a history of publishing,” Roger says. “As technology develops, the forms of reading develop, too. With each new physical form for a work, there are new opportunities for authors and readers to participate in a book culture.”

The continual development of technology and publishing and their influence on ‘book culture’, is explored in Roger’s subject, EL2096 — From Gutenberg to Google: Transformations in Text, Technology, and Culture, which is offered in odd-numbered years. Roger takes his students on an in-depth tour of the history of technology and publishing, including a trip to the JCU Library to see some fascinating works of old.

“Until the 19th century, printing presses were operated by hand,” Roger says. “Once the industrial revolution happened, the machine took over and the publishing industry took off. It had a significant effect on authorship. Authors could become celebrities because widespread readership was possible through much cheaper and more accessible means of distribution.

“Fast forward to modern times and we see a similar transformation. The introduction of the internet has had an impact nearly identical to the automated printing press in terms of cultural response. We can talk about these historical events as though we’re distant and removed from them, and we often don’t realise how similar they are to our own experiences.”

Reflecting on these historical and modern similarities brings us back to what Roger says is at the core of the study of literature: humanity. Through exploring the history of books and literature, we’re exploring the history of humanity. Exploring the history of humanity points us to our current cultures and events. And when we explore the books that we read, and how we read them, and why we read them, we’re exploring our own experiences.

“Pick up a book, any book. Ask any of these questions about it, and you’ll find yourself asking questions about humans and the human condition. You’ll be asking questions about yourself.”

JCU Associate Professor Roger Osborne

Seeking the answers to those questions can help us learn more about ourselves, our histories, our cultures, and the unique people around us. Perhaps by sitting alone with a book for a while, we can learn to better stand beside one another.

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Featured researcher

Roger Osborne

Associate Professor

Dr Roger Osborne's research concentrates on Australian literature and British Modernism as seen through the lens of book history, magazine culture, and scholarly editing. He is a contributing editor to the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad, an award-winning series producing the most up-to-date and authoritative scholarly texts of Conrad's publications. Roger completed his first edition, Under Western Eyes, in 2013.

Roger’s other works include his co-authored book, Australian Books and Authors in the American Marketplace 1840s-1940s, with a projected second volume, and the Joseph Furphy Digital Archive. Conrad’s Nostromo was published in 2023 and a book-length study of the textual and cultural history of Furphy’s Such is Life in 2022.