Dissertation: Unreadable Books: Early Colonial Mexican Documents in Circulation


  • Scholarship


  • Book History
  • Digital Humanities
  • Latin American Studies

“Unreadable Books: Early Colonial Mexican Documents in Circulation.” Dissertation for a PhD in Comparative Literature. 2017.


This dissertation is about the unreading of the Americas: about the ways that the documents that describe American history have been hidden, obscured, and rendered illegible even as they have circulated throughout the Americas and across the Atlantic. Its objects of study are the multilingual (and multimodal) documents that were produced during the first century of Spanish presence in Mesoamerica, a period that can be loosely defined as 1521-1621. It begins from the premise that, thanks to their linguistic and material conditions, the documents produced during this period were largely unreadable when they began to re-circulate among historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It asks: in what ways were these unreadable books read, and by what mechanisms were they rendered readable?

To answer these questions, the dissertation focuses on the most innocuous of mechanisms: the processes by which texts have been replicated for circulation. Textual replication, from transcription to typesetting, photolithography, microfilming, and digitization, is a largely invisible mechanism that has long facilitated the relationship between historians and the primary sources of their scholarship. Today, in the face of large-scale digitization projects, we express concern about the limitations of these mediations: the errors introduced by transcription, or the detail lost through digitization. At the same time, we understand that in many cases it is only thanks to these mediations that these texts are accessible at all. Given these conditions, I find that differing values, and different technologies, shape the ways in which historical documents are made available to be read, and the kinds of information that is lost in transmission.

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