What is a Letter? History of the Book Lecture Series


Join visiting professor Peter Stallybrass and the History of the Book Program for a presentation and reception on

Thursday, October 12, 2017
Lecture 6 pm; Reception 7 pm
Ruggles Hall
Newberry Library
60 West Walton Street

Free and open to the public

Peter Stallybrass begins with a very simple proposition, although he hopes that it will have some surprising implications. The proposition is that the vast majority of letters written between the 1530s and the 1920s consist mainly of blank paper—and that they are designed to do so. This will seem particularly surprising to those of us who have repeatedly emphasized the cost of rag paper, which was often the single most expensive item in the production of the great majority of printed books before the introduction of wood pulp paper in the later nineteenth century.

To put his proposition at its bluntest, letters throughout Europe and America for about four centuries were designed to waste as much paper as possible. Why? Because the more paper you waste, the shorter the letter you have to write. His argument is that letters, despite the endless rhetoric about the significance of long letters, usually aspired to be telegrams, postcards, or emails.

A reception will follow the program.

Learn more and register online.