Guts, Gore, and Pop-Up Books

By Taylor Lemaire

In Alan Galey’s Future of the Book course (INF2331), students are meant to reflect on and respond to questions that address class material, and then post these responses to their group blogs. Professor Galey’s first question got the class thinking about digitization and how the digitization of a particular text may alter the original. My response just so happens to fit right in with the season of spook. So, let’s get spooky.

While considering a potential focus for our first blogging question, I found myself torn between two instances of digitization. The first, a digital adaptation of Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel entitled Gretel and Hansel that takes the form of a free, online adventure game. The second, a digitized medical pop-up book from the 17th century.

The former presented me with a few concerns. I began to question my understanding of the difference between digitization and born-digital artefacts. As professor Galey has noted, video games are considered born-digital, but this particular game borrows from a book-based narrative, so could it then be thought of as a digital text? I also considered the strange looks I might receive for commenting on a game that is, as a result of its Grimm beginnings, rather gory. One could certainly argue that this game is a digital text. However, there is no arguing that I am, in fact, an odd bird. In the end, I decided to explore my second example.

This brings us to my digitized instance of choice but, now that I think about it, there is no shortage of guts and gore in this one either. In fact, this might be more of a “hands-on” gore, so to speak. Here, you’ll be peeling back skin and exposing the bone beneath, lifting the thin lids of dormant eyes, and tearing into tissue! Sound gruesome? Don’t panic, it’s just a pop-up book! The peeling and popping involved here is strictly PG. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill pop-up book for children. Rather, this 1661 German translation of Johann Remmelin’s 1613 work Captoptrum Microcosmicum was advertised to adults as an “informative tome for the interested layperson” (Fessenden 2009, par. 3). I thought this example rather appropriate, as I am in the midst of assembling an anatomical model and consider myself something of an “interested layperson.”

Patiently waiting for her vital organs that I have yet to paint.

If you are still having a difficult time envisioning yourself popping up breastplates – paper though they may be – rest assured, the digitized version of the book does not come equipped with this particular interactive feature. Restored and digitized by a team of librarians at Columbia University Libraries, and accessible through archive.org, Remmelin’s text exists in a much different form than it did in 1613.

Like most texts available through archive.org, an open-book layout is retained and the turning of leaves is simulated. However, this particular instance of digitization uses the traditional codex design in a somewhat confusing way. Upon first flipping through the text, I assumed that each leaf I clicked, and each page of said leaf, was as it appeared in the original book. Upon closer inspection, I realised that the photographic endeavours of the digitization team did not follow the format imposed by archive.org. Each page, rather than existing individually, is a zoomed-in segment of a larger illustration. For example, the following leaf appears to display two separate full-page illustrations of the human eye, however, this is merely an assumption made based on the imposed codex format.


In actuality, these are two images of the same diagram located at the upper left corner of a larger illustration:


This is hardly an arbitrary choice – it is meant to show the reader how the flaps of each pop-up section work and to display the layers that lie beneath the uppermost illustration. Simply zooming in on the figure above would clarify its lines, but would not provide an idea of its mechanisms (though it would be amazing if an area could be zoomed-in on and then clicked, causing a layer to be digitally lifted). Though it is not an arbitrary choice, its intention can become confused by virtue of the codex format and the reading practices that it triggers. If we are to believe Sperberg-McQueen’s assertion that “[t]he representation of a text within a computer inevitably expresses an opinion about what is important in that text” (1991, p. 34) then, surely, the pop-up mechanisms of Remmelin’s work are of the highest importance to the team responsible for its digitization, as they completely alter how the book is read, which order it should be read in, as well as its page count.

Something else struck me about the way the pop-up flaps were represented in this digitized version of the text. Remmelin’s is not a board book, his flaps are made of paper – they are rudimentary, flimsy. Why then do they appear upright, as though the ghost of Remmelin himself holds them up? The digitization obscures the imaging techniques used to photograph each illustration, ultimately creating a skewed conception of the nature of these flaps. An article from the Columbia University Medical Center’s website explains that, in order to “image the flaps[,] pieces of glass were placed to hold them up so that the final image looks as if the flaps are standing all by themselves” (2016, par. 5). Without insight into these imaging techniques, it appears as though the flaps support themselves and gives the digitized text a structural integrity that is absent in its original.

These two representational choices hero Remmelin’s pop-ups, placing them at the foreground of the work where, in the original, they were once just a novelty. Highlighting the pop-up mechanisms in such a way ultimately reveals what Sperberg-McQueen calls the “theory” (1991, p. 34) of the digitized text. However, I do not think this difference is necessarily negative. What the digitization lacks in 3D interaction, it makes up for in an exaggerated focus on its pop-ups – it is almost as though they come right out of the screen.

Editors note: a previous version of this post was published without its second half. We apologize to Taylor and to our readers for the confusion.


“A Medical Pop-Up Book From the 17th Century.” Cumc.columbia.edu. Last modified January 11, 2016. http://newsroom.cumc.columbia.edu/blog/2016/01/11/popup/.

Fressenden, Marissa. “Check Out a Medical Pop-Up Book From the 17th Century.” The Smithsonion.com. Last modified January 13, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/check-out-medical-pop-up-book-from-17th-century-180957803/?no-ist.

Sperberg-McQueen, C.M. (1991). “Text in the Electronic Age: Textual Study and Text Encoding, with Examples from Medieval Texts.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 6, no. 1 (1991): 34-46. doi: 10.1093/llc/6.1.34.


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