Purdue University Graduate School
2021.7.29 McCarter. Dissertation.pdf (1.68 MB)


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posted on 2021-07-29, 23:33 authored by Christina M McCarterChristina M McCarter

The idea of “the book” overflows with extraneous significance: books are presented as windows, gateways, vessels, lighthouses, and gardens. Books speak to us and feed us, and they are a method of escape. The book has long represented much more than a static, hinged, bound, covered object inscribed with words. Even when a book is not performing an elaborate, imaginative function, the word “book” very often signifies the text it holds or even the text’s author: You can open The Bluest Eye or carry Toni Morrison in your bag. Fourteenth-century author Geoffrey Chaucer invokes a “book” by “Lollius” as authoritative source of his Troilus and Criseyde, though no person exists; likewise, to conclude the same text, Chaucer asks directs his project to “go, litel bok, go.” When a book makes an appearance in narrative, it is rarely just a book—without legs, the book moves, and without breath, it lives. This dissertation asks what about the shape of the codex has helped the book become such a metaphorically rich signifier.

This dissertation attempts to unravel the various threads of meaning that make up the complex “idea of the book.” I focus on one of these threads: the book as a material object. By focusing on how the book as object—not the book as idea—functions within narrative, I argue that we can identify what about the book object enables its metaphorical range. I analyze moments in literature, television, and film when metaphorical functions are assigned, not to an ephemeral, complex idea of the book, but rather to the material realities of the book as an object. In these moments, the codex’s essential, material shape (what I am calling its bookishness) enables metaphorical functioning; I show that, by examining when mundanely physical bindings, pages, covers, and spines initiate metaphorical action, we can identify how the material book has come to mean so much more than itself.

Indeed, despite a renewed appreciation for the book as both material and cultural object, books have become so significantly meaningful that attempts to define “the book” evade simplicity, rendering books as everything and nothing at the same time. My inquire explores this complexity by starting with a simple premise: Metaphors are based on some element of physical truth. Though the book has sprouted in a variety of metaphorical directions, many of those metaphors are grounded in the book’s material realities. Acknowledging this, especially in an age of fast-evolving media and bookish fetishism, offers a valuable and novel perspective on how and why books are both semantically rich and culturally valued objects.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Robyn Malo (Bartlett)

Additional Committee Member 2

Manushag Powell

Additional Committee Member 3

Dorsey Armstrong

Additional Committee Member 4

Shaun Hughes