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Cultures of the Book

ENGL 034.001
MW 1:45-3:15pm

The book: it’s a soothingly familiar technology, one we all know how to operate. Open the front covers to reveal the text; turn the page to continue reading. Yet even the most seemingly ordinary aspects of the book, like titles and page numbers, had to be invented. And they are changing rapidly, as digital technologies alter how we read and write.

This course aims to challenge everything you thought you knew about books, reading, and writing. Working closely each class period with rare books and manuscripts at Penn and other Philadelphia libraries, we will investigate how the codex format we know to today came to be and consider its digital future(s). While we will be focusing primarily on the Western book, we will also consider forms of writing from Mesoamerica, Africa, and Asia, including palm leaf manuscripts, wampum belts, and Incan Khipu. Throughout, this course will spotlight the cutting-edge technologies being used to study the history of the written word today, including DNA analysis of medieval parchment skins and machine learning algorithms that can virtually reconstruct damaged scrolls.

Students will have the opportunity to work closely with a rare artifact in special collections and contribute directly to an ongoing public digital humanities project on the history of the book. No prior experience in archives or coding necessary.


The syllabus for a previous version of this course, taught remotely in Fall 2020, can be found here:

fulfills requirements
Sector IV: Interdisciplinary Humanities and Social Sciences of the College's General Education Curriculum