A week or so ago I was helping to clear out a room in my mother-in-law’s house and I came across an example of one of my favourite kinds of text: the page of writing with, on its reverse, something from an apparently different world entirely. In this instance, on one side, the beginning of an article by art historian Rosalind Krauss on ‘Poststructuralism and the Paraliterary’, and on the other, the invoice for a service of a Toyota Prius from a north London garage, including replacement spark plugs and screenwash.
Photocopiers and home printers produce these little aleatory alignments all the time. Is there a relationship here between each side? Not meaningfully in terms of content, however tempting it is to draw a thread between Krauss’ ‘The State of Criticism’ and punchy declarations like ‘wheel trim is missing’. But there must be a link in terms of time and place: one of these texts was lying around and unwanted when the other needed copying, or printing out.
My grandfather had an aversion to any kind of waste and for him paper was always two-sided. In the plastic bags he left behind on his death are many instances of this kind of recycling-as-doubleness. He had a particular habit of drafting poetry on the reverse of dust jackets (to which he had a curious and never fully explained aversion), and also on the pieces of everyday print that fluttered through Kent in the 1930s and 1940s. Here are some twins:
One of the effects of these doubles is to draw out our intellectual or aesthetic or ethical priorities: do you see a cover to Austen’s novel which, incidentally, carries the draft of some unpublished lines; or is this a document of amateur mid-century poetic taste, by chance written on an unwanted scrap of print? Can we read both sides without imposing a sense of hierarchy? Where would these pages go in an archive?
Verses drafted on the back of – for example – a ticket to a Social Evening at St Mary’s Hall, Westerham, are similar to Emily Dickinson’s much-discussed poems written on the reverse of used envelopes. Not only is there is a recycling of already-used paper, but also, and more fundamentally, a sense of poems as in the first instance shapes – the (often unusual) form of the reused page informing the poetic choices of the writer, including line and verse length.
The starkly simple fact that paper has two sides (rather than surface and depth) has consequences for writing and reading that I don’t think have been fully explored. We probably become most aware of these two sides in instances of bleedthrough – when the ink from one side is visible on the other. Here’s an example from 425 years ago, a collection of dialogues called The wil of wit, wits will, or wils wit, compiled by the prolific but now rarely-discussed author Nicholas Breton. It was printed in 1606 under the command of publisher Thomas Creede, but whoever Creede had inking the type and pulling the press grew repeatedly over-exuberant and there are a number of instances in the copy at the Huntington Library, California, where we can see what we shouldn’t.
These are two sides of a single leaf. The page on the left – the penultimate page of an exchange between ‘The Scholar and the Solider’ – becomes in places illegible because the ink-heavy setting on the other side of the leaf (right) seeps through. We can see this best with the word ‘FINIS’, trimly definitive and appropriately located on the right, but hovering, reversed and clustered but just about legible, on the left. The effect is of an imminent ending: of an ending approaching around the corner, noisily. It’s a product of the two temporal orders of the leaf: the two sides are simultaneous (they are both there at the same time), but also sequential (we read one and then the other), and the collision between these two orders creates the sense of an untimely intrusion. In moments of bleedthrough we can nearly but not quite achieve the impossible feat of reading two sides of paper at once.