Sunday, November 20, 2005
Lust for paper
Inspired by Miriam Burnstein’s post, below, about collecting 19thc books:
I don’t think we talk enough about our love of paper. Paper, bindings: the physical experience of holding books and touching paper. And the addictive nature of book collecting is almost as visceral.
When I interviewed for my current job, I talked about work I was doing on print culture and street literature. I passed around a little pamphlet, an 18thc collection of songs. It sits inside a clear plastic envelop that screams noli me tangere, which is a dreadful shame as the paper is beautiful. Even 18thc street ephemera was printed on strong, thick paper, unlike the books The Little Professor describes. So on a whim I said, as it circulated, “Go ahead, slip your finger in. Touch it.” At least one person looked revolted; perhaps my tone was more lascivious than was desirable, given the circumstances. At any rate, others must have shared my fetish, for here I am.
In my comment to Miriam B.’s post I mentioned Steetprint, developed at the University of Alberta and billed as
An online community dedicated to the public research, teaching, and sharing of formerly inaccessible texts and artifacts…. We also provide free software for creating your own digital collections. Our goal is to make formerly inaccessible and ephemeral texts and artifacts available to the widest possible audience, fulfilling the promise of the Internet and bringing information “back to the streets.”
I have not looked too far into this myself it’s on my “To-do” list but it seems most promising. And it might, somehow, tie into John Holbo’s ideas for scholarly online community.
Is there a disconnect between lust for paper, and interest in on-line facsimiles? Not really, no: facsimiles are the only way most of us are going to see these texts. In fact, high resolution facsimiles (with workable interfaces) promote an appreciation for the materiality of texts in a way that plain-text transcriptions, as wonderful and useful as they are, cannot.
My only question is, given my admitted propensities, is looking at online facsimiles of texts the same as looking at porn?
[cross-posted to my blog]
Miriam, as someone married to a woman who builds her own medieval manuscripts from scratch, and spends hours online looking at different varieties of paper--studying its various properties, the way it holds ink, ages, &c.--I can testify that looking at online manuscripts is, in fact, no different in its addictive nature from looking at pornography:
There may be a hapless subgroup here who would not have managed to develop a compulsive pursuit of ... sexual behavior because of [societal] constraints and inconveniences. The Internet erases most of these, and the vulnerable subgroup is then at the mercy of their hardwiring.
Once these collections were made available online, I’ve seen the quality time I spend with my wife dip to almost nothing. All those barriers--the grants she’d have to get to afford to approach the archives she’d need to enter in order to see them--collapsed, and now she’s a shell of the woman I married. I look in her eyes and I almost swear I see manuscripts endlessly reflected.
Jesus, I’m drooling! That is one beautiful book. Uh, what were you saying?
Mr. Giles, the caretaker of Sunnydale High School’s improbably impressive collection of incunables, once said he didn’t trust computers because they had no smell.
Paper engages more of our senses than the visual, and I think this is part of the reason why obsessing over digital reproductions, which for now are limited to one sense only, feels like drooling over pornography.
More interesting may be to ponder what it means when various literary scholars decide to focus on manuscripts or other “peripherals” of literature. It means for one, that they are not assessing texts in relation to the author’s historical or political context. It may also mean that the scholar is awarding a manuscript a certain status: as religious or ancient philosophical scrolls are awarded status. Shakespeareans do this Scriptural hegemony routinely: it’s all about the First Folio, finding glitches, “cruxes” etc.--and Shakespeareans are generally more interested in these sort of textual quibbles than in attempting to demonstrate the relationship of the dramas to human experience, which would involve a slightly more daunting type of investigation than calligraphy analysis does.
More interesting may be to ponder what it means when various literary scholars decide to focus on manuscripts or other “peripherals” of literature. It means for one, that they are not assessing texts in relation to the author’s historical or political context.
You may be mistaking some forms of textual criticism and editing to be more representative of a very wide spectrum of approaches than is merited. Focusing on the material nature of texts can very often necessitate understanding the historical and political context of their creation, distribution, and reception. An entire interdisciplinary field—Book History—is devoted to this enterprise.
Those interested in understanding more about the field should investigate
<li>The journal Book History</li>
<li>The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing</l>
Porn, Miriam, I think I was saying porn. The sad thing is that you can’t see the incredible (and labor-intensive) job she did binding the thing. You can get a sense of it in this picture, but she actually bound it just like the original manuscript would’ve been bound. The only thing she didn’t do, as Rich noted somewhere or other, is make the paper from scratch. (But I’m sure, if pressed, she could, as she’s pretty handy with a chainsaw.) She did, however, send it through some 18-step treatment process. Which brings me to Shem’s point:
Yes, the wife’s obsessed with the materiality of texts; and yes, she studies manuscripts and considers that materiality part of the text (though she doesn’t punt the issue, a la De Man); but she works on medieval manuscripts riddled with variations, like The Canterbury Tales, it’s impossible to tell how those works relate to human experience without figure out what those works are. Which of the variations of “The Knight’s Tale” is the definitive one? A necessary step all medievalists must take before they analyze a text is determining, well, what constitutes the text they’re going to analyze. Then they analyze. Sure, some scholars do track down manuscripts and publish studies of all the extant manuscripts and their variations; but that’s necessary leg-work, after which other scholars can start to do their analysis.
How do you say “There’s nothing outside the manuscript” in French? Or should it be “manuscripts”?
I’m having déjà vu; there was at least one discussion along these lines, some months back.
Myself, I don’t see how someone can begin to think seriously about a text without knowing how it was produced: who wrote it, when and where, under what circumstances; how it was circulated or published, and in what format; how it was received. Sometimes such questions are crucially important, as with the “good nights” I work on (a very basic example: it’s important to know that they were printed up the day before at the latest, and so cannot be the last words of the malefactor about to be hanged even though that is how they are marketed), and sometimes they may seem less pressing.
I don’t suppose it is an accident that those of us who work on earlier periods often pay more attention to historical context and the materiality of texts. Those working on more contemporary texts probably take much of that sort of thing for granted.
Those working on more contemporary texts probably take much of that sort of thing for granted.
Yes, we do take it for granted, but we probably shouldn’t.
I was browsing the journals Gzombie suggested, and I was surprised to come across an essay in Book History on the Oxford African writers’ series that was initiated in the 1960s.
Those books are produced mechanically and straightforwardly, but the social conditions of their production and distribution are complex and interesting.
In the case of African literature, a great deal depended on the support of local government for foreign publishers (who were, in this case, publishing local material). When that dried up in the 1970s, English language literature from Africa suffered somewhat…
So it’s not quite ‘that sort of thing’—no one is talking about binding or ink. But it’s similar in another way: these books exist because of historical contingencies.
That’s exactly what I would’ve said. To add a bit: I recently (thanks to Scott McLemee, who sent them) began looking into the history of the “Little Blue Book” series, since it published both London’s work in pamphlet form, as well as primers on “The Survival of the Fittest” and the like. What’s significant about these isn’t their materiality per se, but the relation of their materiality to their distribution; understanding the relation of these two aspects is critical to understanding 1) how people were learning what they knew about evolutionary theory and 2) how widespread these ideas were. I haven’t been able to track down publication data for them yet--haven’t had time to really look, actually--but it will be one factor in which aspects of evolutionary theory I really ought to address. Reading oodles of contemporary newspapers and magazines, both local and country-wide, has already narrowed the field immensely. As my new stalker, John Emerson, will attest, I’m currently writing a little about this elsewhere.
On this same front, I don’t know where I’d be without my copy of Hackett’s 70 Years of Bestsellers. I know there’s an updated edition, but they’re not going to sell any more copies of The Jungle in 1904 than they already have. The relation of what, in literary circles, typically passes for “a popular novel” doesn’t correspond in the least to which novels were actually popular. To return to Sinclair, every essay I’ve read about The Jungle discusses how popular and influential it was, the suggestion being that it dominated the literary marketplace and was the book everyone talked about and read...well, it wasn’t. Influential, yes, but it barely outsold Margaret Deland’s The Awakening of Helena Ritchie and wasn’t in spitting distance of Winston Churchill’s Coniston. Now, this doesn’t take into consideration lending libraries, ubiquitous pirate copies, &c. But it does indicate the need to inject some Moretti-esque empirical data into our scholarship.
No, no! Stalking horse, not stalker! I innocently mention Darwin, and Shazam! Scott jumps in with both feet.