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Primp My Book: A brief history of the customized reading experience

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Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.

The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.

Edward FitzGerald’s 'The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Edward FitzGerald’s 'The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr.' Photo by Pete Smith.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr (Needham, MA: Rosemary Press, 1916)
Miniature Book Collection

This tiny Rubáiyát, like others in its series, is bound in Russian leather and hand-tooled in gold. It was one of only 60 published by Rosemary Press, founded by Charles Dana Burrage (1857–1926), a Boston lawyer, naturalist, Orientalist, and the first president of the University of California Club of New England. His wee books were given as party favors at club events.

Thomas Moore’s 'Lalla Rookh:  An Oriental Romance.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Thomas Moore’s 'Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (London and New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1860)

This copy of Moore’s Lalla Rookh was primped in the early twentieth century. Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London bound this weighty three-pound copy in a colored leather binding inlaid with gold to form an intricate floral pattern studded with a central diamond and several rubies, pearls, and turquoises. Hidden inside the front cover is a stunning Cosway-style portrait of Moore, similar to Marie Antoinette’s portrait on another book in this display. A floral pattern was chipped into the book’s gilded edges creating a bas-relief effect, not unlike the gauffered edges on the embroidered prayer book mentioned below.

Page from Book of Hours. Photo by Pete Smith.
Page from Book of Hours. Photo by Pete Smith.

Book of Hours (France, 15th-19th Century)
Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection

Illuminated Books of Hours, or private devotional manuals, emerged as a distinct genre in the late thirteenth century. By the fourteenth, these status symbols had become items of conspicuous consumption for the nobility. The quantity and quality of their illustrations, called miniatures, is often an indication of their value, but this particular example has a twist—these illuminations are nineteenth-century fakes. While the manuscript dates to the fifteenth century, the miniatures were either over-painted or entirely fabricated approximately 500 years later into blanks left by the medieval scribe (for just such enhancement). The work is probably that of a nineteenth-century artist attempting to increase the value of a medieval manuscript.

'Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis.' Photo by Pete Smith.
'Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis (Venice: Paulus Balleonius, 1709)

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this devotional is bound in thin wooden boards held together by metal hinges. The delicate fronds and flourishes on the upper and lower covers were created by inlaying various colored woods into a black veneer. Some of these woods are stained blue and green, while others retain their natural colors. The mother-of-pearl dog-roses that adorn the covers and spine are a symbol of Mary, and thus function as both ornament and clue to the book’s content.

'La Mode Feminine de 1490 a 1920,' Volume 2 of 3. Photo by Pete Smith.
'La Mode Feminine de 1490 a 1920,' Volume 2 of 3. Photo by Pete Smith.

La Mode Féminine de 1490 à 1920, Volume 2 of 3 (Paris: Nilsson, ca. 1926)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons

This collection of hand-colored French fashion plates features a portrait of the Queen of Fashion herself, Marie Antoinette. This portrait is an example of Cosway bindings, miniature paintings on ivory inset into gold-tooled leather covers. While these bindings get their name from the English miniaturist Richard Cosway (c. 1742–1821), the London bookselling firm Southeran’s is credited with their invention. Cosway bindings became popular as post-market modifications in the early twentieth century. This fashionable cover is tailor-made for its subject.

Bernard Kops’s 'The World is a Wedding.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Bernard Kops’s 'The World is a Wedding.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Bernard Kops’s The World is a Wedding (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1966)

Not all post-market portraiture is elegant. Kops modified this presentation copy of his autobiography for his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Kops removed the original cover and replaced it with the inverted cover torn from a paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which he then decorated with pen and a family photo. In his inscription on the title page, Kops explains, “I hated the… cover so much I made my own. Yours Bernard Kops December 65.”

'The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ.' Photo by Pete Smith.
'The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ.' Photo by Pete Smith.

The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (London: Christopher Barker, 1598)
The Stark Library

Early pocket-sized Bibles often benefitted from the protection of clasps and cornerpieces, which protected a volume’s edges from wear, enhancing longevity and portability. This small New Testament volume, printed by the same printer as the Book of Common Prayer, belonged to a wealthy individual: the edges of the pages show the remains of gilding, while the clasps and cornerpieces appear to be genuine silver. The Tudor roses visible on the cornerpieces and an inscription by a previous owner on the inside cover may link the book to Queen Elizabeth I.

Washington Irving’s 'A History of New York,' Volume 1 of 2. Photo by Pete Smith.
Washington Irving’s 'A History of New York,' Volume 1 of 2. Photo by Pete Smith.

Washington Irving’s A History of New York, Volume 1 of 2 (New York: Inskeep & Bradford, 1809)

Written under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, this playful account of New York parodies earlier histories. Owned by the New York cotton magnate M. C. D. Borden and bearing the seal of New York City on its cover, this first-edition copy was re-bound by prominent Parisian bookbinder Georges Canapé (1864–1940) close to 100 years after its printing. The bright orange color may hint at New York’s Dutch history, while the goatskin leather, commonly used by Canapé, fits the nickname that Irving gave to New York City: Gotham, or “goat town.”

C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s 'Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald.' Photo by Pete Smith.
C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s 'Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald.' Photo by Pete Smith.

C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald (New York: J. F. Taylor, 1902)
Numbered edition, no. 1 of 5
The Stark Library

Bound in brown pigskin, this painted cover lavishly depicts Omar’s vines of wisdom, each line of the drawing seared into place by a heated tool or flame. True to Bjerregaard’s vow to explore the “mines under the vineyard,” the pages between the decorated covers—rich with watercolor paintings, additional pyrographic illustrations, and brocade backed endpapers—reveal further artistic enhancements. One of only five printed, this opulent “Jamshyd” copy presents Bjerregaard’s anti-sensualist pairing of the famous quatrains with Sufi wisdom.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 'The Last Days of Pompeii.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 'The Last Days of Pompeii.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (London: Collins, ca. 1910s)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons

Polished wooden inlaid boards cover this otherwise unassuming edition of Lytton’s popular novel, leaving the original spine visible. The inlaid upper cover is composed of at least eight separate pieces of wood, cut and fitted together so precisely that the surface feels completely smooth to the touch. Inlaid bindings peaked in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so this early twentieth-century repackaging was likely a deliberately anachronistic choice—perhaps a playful reference to the famous mosaics of Pompeii.

Book of Common Prayer. Photo by Pete Smith.
Book of Common Prayer. Photo by Pete Smith.

Book of Common Prayer (London: Christopher Barker, 1586)

Embroidered with silver cord and thread, this rare surviving example of textile binding features red velvet covers decorated with spangles. Although the exact date of this binding is unknown, it closely resembles the embroidered velvet Bible presented by the same printer, Christopher Barker, to Queen Elizabeth I as a New Year’s gift in 1584. The identity of ‘F. S.’ remains a mystery, but the gauffered edges—gilded, and then impressed with patterns by a heated tool—indicate that this book was owned by a member of the upper class. A final clue to the mysterious owner’s status lies in a 1638 statement by a guild of English embroiderers, who claimed that their book covers were fit for the “Nobility and Gentry of this kingdome… and not for common persons.”

Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.

Ransom Center Receives Grant To Catalog Spanish Comedias Sueltas

Comedias sueltas from the Harry Ransom Center's collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Comedias sueltas from the Harry Ransom Center's collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

The Ransom Center has received $137,015 from the Council on Library and Information Resources Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives for “Revealing Texas Collections of Comedias Sueltas.”

The Ransom Center holds more than 14,000 “comedias sueltas,” a generic term for plays published in small pamphlet formats in Spain from the late 17th through the 19th century. Purchased in pieces, generally in collections of bound volumes, the materials have been described as one of the major collections of Spanish dramatic literature in suelta form in North America.

While portions of the collection are minimally cataloged, the grant will allow for the creation of individual database records for each suelta, making more extensive information about the collection available on the Ransom Center’s Web site. The grant will also support the cataloging of more than 600 sueltas at the Cushing Library at Texas A&M University.

The project will be completed by February 2014.

Staley to remain Director of the Harry Ransom Center

Bill Powers, President of The University of Texas at Austin, shared the below communication with faculty and staff today:

I am pleased to announce that Tom Staley has agreed to stay on as director of the Harry Ransom Center. Tom was previously scheduled to retire on August 31 of this year.

Tom is one of the world’s most highly respected library directors, and under his leadership the Ransom Center has celebrated the humanities, advanced scholarship, expanded our collections, and brought great distinction to the University.

I know that many people on our campus will join me in welcoming this news.

Thomas F. Staley, Director of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Thomas F. Staley, Director of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Wyndell Faulk, preparator with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.'  Photo by Pete Smith.
Wyndell Faulk, preparator with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.' Photo by Pete Smith.
John Wright, chief preparator with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.' Photo by Pete Smith.
John Wright, chief preparator with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, works to de-install the exhibition 'Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.' Photo by Pete Smith.

“The Proper Binge”: Julia Child in the Ransom Center archives

Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
The Ransom Center holds the Knopf Inc. archive, which includes material related to the publication of the groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. View photos and read some of the letters that document the book’s progress and publication over several years.

Spalding Gray's life as told by…Spalding Gray

Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.

Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.

The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.

The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.

The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.

Fellows Find: Elizabeth Bowen and the Discourse of Propaganda

Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.
Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.

Stefania Porcelli of Libera Università- San Pio V in Rome, Italy, recently visited the Ransom Center on an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship to research the Elizabeth Bowen collection. She shares some of her findings.

With the support of an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship, I spent six weeks at the Harry Ransom Center this autumn, carrying out my project on Elizabeth Bowen’s attitude toward World War II and the language of propaganda, which also investigates her involvement in the “media ecology” of the time.

I worked mostly with unpublished material. Encouraged by Ransom Center Director Thomas Staley, and thanks to archivist Gabby Redwine’s help, I was able to access Bowen’s uncatalogued letters to Charles Ritchie. Although intensely focused on their love affair, these letters nonetheless provide ultimate evidence that Bowen constantly reflects upon ongoing political events, and on the language used by media to represent or censor them. This idea finds its perfect literary counterpart in the image of history sitting at the same table with the main characters in Bowen’s wartime novel The Heat of the Day (1949).

Bowen’s papers show that her attitude toward the war is at least ambiguous: while supporting Britain’s engagement in the conflict, she deconstructs the language of British propaganda. While appreciating Irish neutrality as an act of independence, she volunteers to spy on Ireland for the British Ministry of Information. Since my broader research also involves Dylan Thomas’s documentaries written for Strand Film, I was excited to find a contract for a propaganda script Bowen was supposed to write for the same company. I was also surprised to find some correspondence about the Italian translation of three of her novels. Apparently, neither Bowen nor her literary agents were satisfied with these translations. I look forward now to reading them and seeing how these early Italian versions metamorphosed Bowen’s peculiar, challenging style.