“Why Books?” Conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute

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Why Books?“–a two-day conference sponsored by Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, October 28-29–promised to “bring[] together speakers from a variety of disciplines–from literature and history to sociology and computer science–to probe the form and function of the book in a rapidly changing media ecology.”  It did just that.  The conference’s first day offered a broad variety of site visits allowing for detailed discussion of a given topic; day two gathered a series of plenary speakers to discuss the future of the book from their disciplinary perspective.

The two site visits I attended were splendid.  The first was Lindy Hess’s “How to Get Published,” in which Susan Ferber (Executive Editor at Oxford University Press), Lindsay Waters (Executive Editor of Humanities at Harvard University Press), and Janet Silver, (Literary Director of the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth agency), discussed the features of successful book proposals, addressed determining whether a manuscript belongs with a trade or university press, when to use an agent (when approaching a trade press), the need to use word counts rather than page counts, and the need for consistently good writing.  Both Waters’ Enemies of Promise and “A Call for Slow Writing” should be mandatory reading for all academics.   Susan Ferber shared valuable and detailed advice from her experience editing manuscripts and disseminated “Tips for Book Proposals” and has since added “An Editor’s Book Publishing Tips for the Uninitiated.”   She also recommended William Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2008).  Silver helped distinguish between trade books and university press monographs but also acknowledged that some manuscripts might function as a bridge between academic and trade publishing.   This kind of sane and honest discussion, full of lucid advice from those who understand the publishing business is something we should see more often at annual meetings of professional societies.

In a second session, called “Preserving Web-Based Digital Images,” Andrea Goethals discussed the need to preserve web content, showed participants the complexity of doing so, and demonstrated web harvesting in progress.  She distinguished between domain harvesting and selective harvesting.  The former might include sites from France with the “fr” domain; the latter might be organized around a theme, say, Olympics 2012, or Katrina, or Obama.  This was a useful introduction to the complexities of preserving the human record now contained on the web.

The series of talks on Friday are summarized below:

Opening Conversation: “Future Formats of Texts: E-books and Old Books”

Robert Darnton noted that old books and e-books need not represent contradictory extremes along the spectrum of communication.  Though he first saw Melville’s copy of Emerson’s Essays at Houghton’s reading room as an undergraduate, it is now online for free.  Additionally, the new digital technology allows (as he discusses extensively in The Case for Books) for monographs to be accompanied by online archives.  His forthcoming book, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard University Press) will be accompanied by online recordings of the ballads that Darnton argues Parisians used to record and disseminate information, suggesting that forms of “going viral” existed long before the internet.   These examples demonstrate the utility of a hybrid combination of the book and digital sources, and provide models for the future of the scholarly monograph.

Stuart Shieber provided a detailed comparison of what readers appreciated in books and what they appreciated in e-readers like the Kindle.  He distinguished between the functionalities of e-book readers and those of e-books.  The Kindle might have an edge over the codex in its weight, its search function, its reference access, its aid to the poor-sighted, and its ease of acquisition.  But the codex still seems preferable to the e-book.  His conclusion nicely summarized the conundrum at the heart of his talk: “ebook readers are preferred to books, but books are still preferable to e-books.”

Session 1: “Storage and Retrieval”

Adrian Johns looked at the final purposes of universal libraries, tracing the history of copyright with its obligatory deposit requirement to argue that the current trouble Google is experiencing with orphaned works originated in ever-expanding term of copyright and an increasingly exhaustive claim to the right to copies on the part of deposit libraries.  He also wondered whether the public use of reason–something he connected to the mission of deposit libraries–required a degree of privacy that e-reading might diminish.

Matthew Kirschenbaum detailed the kinds of things scholars of the future might want to explore when looking at, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: A Novel.  Will scholars of the future want not only Franzen’s desktop, his 100s of saved drafts, but also a record of his Windows use and his iTunes playlists?  Turning to the kind of digital forensics necessary to study such material, he suggested that some kind of computational analysis of these records will be necessary as will skill sets  in both the sciences and the humanities.

Session II: “Circulation and Transmission”

Isabel Hoffmeyr looked at the Indian Ocean Book trade to suggest models for modes of production and consumption that depart from print capitalism theories of circulation.  She suggested that the cosmopolitan networks made possible by the Indian Ocean’s trade routes, with their dismissal of copyright and libraries, more closely resemble today’s new print environment than standard theories of circulation.

Meredith L. McGill looked at the printed poetry of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and asked two related questions: 1) what print occurs outside the book? and 2) what would it mean to sift books by format?  A printer’s decision to use one format over another directs our attention to the kind of circulation envisioned.  In that sense, circulation might be considered as occurring, or being envisioned, before textual production.

Session III: “Reception and Use”

Paul Duguid reflected on the limitations of digital projects such as Google Books, which contains what he called “splendidly corrupt editions” and suffers from a naivete about both bibliography and books that hinders its goals.  A work like Cotzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, in which page design enriches meaning, simply cannot be adequately scanned onto the limited format provided by Kindle.    Eventually, the digital world will need to move away from a narrative of liberation that posits a world of endlessly digitizable texts to a more carefully corralled world, in which the overload of information is sifted and constrained.

Elizabeth Long pondered reader’s experiences with e-readers, finding that readers liked e-readers’ storage capacity, portability, downloading powers, reduction of bookshelf space, and their instant gratification.  Readers were less satisfied by the experience of flipping back and forth, the impossibility of writing marginalia,  the difficulty of note taking, of viewing maps and illustrations, of measuring how much was left in a given chapter, their lack of page numbers, and the difficulty of citing etexts.

In closing remarks, Peter Stallybrass noted that the expected oppositions had not come up in the day’s talks.  He reminded us that technologies do not displace one another and that targeted binaries, such as oral vs. literary, or print vs. manuscript, often impede rather than enrich discussion, though this was not an issue at this conference.  That reading rooms at libraries are more packed than ever before suggests that whatever else the digital world may do to the future of the book, it has not made the book of less interest or less valued.

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5 Responses to ““Why Books?” Conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    See also the recap available at PhiloBiblos, which notes the conference’s extensive digital presence.

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  3. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks so much, Anna, for this account of the conference.

    That your Friday re-cap opens with Darnton’s reminder that “old books and e-books need not represent contradictory extremes along the spectrum of communication” and concludes with Stallybrass’s reminder that “that technologies do not displace one another and that targeted binaries, such as oral vs. literary, or print vs. manuscript, often impede rather than enrich discussion” brings the day’s conversation full circle. As the study of media–manuscript, print, digital, and other forms–has advanced, many scholars have come to recognize the symbiotic relationships that exist between old and new media.

    Those interested in Darnton’s forthcoming book can access a preview of what might be in store for readers: “An Early Information Society:
    News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris”
    . Originally delivered by Darnton for his 2000 American Historical Association Presidential Address, piece, published in the online version of the American Historical Review, the piece shortly appeared in electronic format. The text includes, cartoons, maps, and songs available as either MP3s or RealMedia format.

    Fortunately some libraries seem to be attuned to the preservation of new materials that our digital world has produced. In a recent talk for the Washington Area Group for Print Culture Studies, Steve Enniss, the director of the Folger Library, spoke about the late poet laureate of Great Britain Ted Hughes’s computers and hard drives–and the recognition by Hughes as well as librarians of the interest these materials will no doubt hold for scholars in the future.

    Also of interest, Hoffmayer’s remarks indicate the shifts in the ways we are viewing print culture and reevaluating theories of print and colonialism in light of globalization and its import.

  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Yes. One thing (of many) that was nice about the collection of speakers is that each in some way acknowledged the complexity of the future of the book. Taking Darnton’s lead, everyone assumed that some kind of hybridity was inevitable and even a good thing. But they were also steeped in book history; no infotopians here. The challenge was to identify the challenges posed by a future that demands, as Kirschenbaum noted, skill sets in both the sciences and humanities.

  5. Brenda J. Williams Says:

    An informative report on the conference.
    It is much appreciated.

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