Archive for the ‘History of Reading’ Category

ASECS 2012 Panels on Digital Humanities and Book History/Print Culture Topics

March 16, 2012

The following ASECS 2012 panels deal with relevant EMOB topics such as digital humanities, print culture, bibliography, reading, libraries, and more. The selection process entailed reviewing panel titles devoted to one of these topics, so some individual papers on other panels may well deserve a place on this roster. Please feel free to add to our list! In addition, we should stress that there are many other excellent sessions and papers that do not fall under these general headings; the entire program promises a very rich, rewarding conference. See the program for full details.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
THATCamp: “Research, Editing, and Publishing via” Pecan (all day workshop); to register, click here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

1. “Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Print/Visual/Material Culture” – I Llano

17. “Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Print/Visual/Material Culture” – II Llano

20. “Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy” Regency East

30. “Slavery, the Book, and Enlightenment Rights Theory” Bowie A

41. “Why We Argue about the Way We Read” (Roundtable) Bowie C

52. “Materializing Verse” – I Live Oak

54. “Funding, Grants, Hiring, Programs: Sharing Advice on How to Get Things Done in Hard Times” (Roundtable) Pecan

67. “Materializing Verse” – II Frio

69. “Digital Approaches to Library History” Regency East (The Bibliographical Society of America)

70. “Reading Texts and Contexts in the Eighteenth Century” (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing —SHARP) Guadalupe

Friday, March 23, 2012

84. “Visualization and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture” Frio

85. “Women’s History of Achievement: What’s in the Archive?” Nueces

104. “Diggable Data, Scalable Reading and New Humanities Scholarship” (Digital Humanities Caucus) Regency East

108. “Authors and Readers in the Eighteenth Century” – I (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing—SHARP) Pecos

112. “Teaching the Eighteenth-Century: A Poster Session” – II Regency Ballroom Foyer (several posters feature digital approaches/tools)

121. “Digital Humanities and the Archives” (Roundtable) (Digital Humanities Caucus) Regency East

133. “Authors and Readers in the Eighteenth Century” – II (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing —SHARP) Pecos

135. “Poetry and the Archive” (Roundtable) Blanco

139. “A Digital Humanities Experiment, Year One: Aphra Behn Online” (Roundtable) Regency East

144. “Copyright: Contexts and Contests” (The Bibliographical Society of America) Frios

Saturday, March 24, 2012

145. “Allan Ramsay: Poet, Printer, Editor, Song Collector, Scots Revivalist” Guadalupe

149. “Publishing the Past: History and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture” – I Frio

170. Publishing the Past: History and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture” – II Frio

207. “The Scottish Invention of English Copyright” Pecan

MLA 2011 Sessions on Electronic Resources and Related Topics

January 2, 2011

Below are MLA sessions on electronic resources or digital humanities that may be of interest to readers.  Many include abstracts.  Sessions on the history of the book are included.  If there are omissions, please forward these to me.

It would be great to hear from those who attend the sessions or read the abstracts.

Thursday, 06 January

12. Labor in the Digital Humanities

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 407, LA Convention Center

Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Information Technology and the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities

Presiding: William Thompson, Western Illinois Univ.

Speakers: Mark Childs, Coventry Univ.; Tanya E. Clement, Univ. of Maryland, College Park; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona Coll.; Amanda L. French, George Mason Univ.; Carl Stahmer, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Members of this roundtable will address the professional and ethical issues raised by labor in and of the digital humanities. Questions open for discussion: the problem of authorship; the levels and kinds of recognition for contributions made to a project; issues regarding rights holding; problems raised by the differing institutional status of persons working on the same project; potential problems raised around distance education; and the complex questions raised by compensation, in the form of pay and in the form of accumulated symbolic capital.

For abstracts, visit

19. Digging into Data: Computational Methods of Literary Research

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Methods of Literary Research

Presiding: Maura Carey Ives, Texas A&M Univ., College Station

1. “The Dangers and Delights of Data Mining,” Glenn H. Roe, Univ. of Chicago

2. “The Meandering through Textuality Challenge: Perspectives on the Humane Archive,” Stephen J. Ramsay, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln

3. “Exploring the Underpinnings of the Social Edition,” Raymond G. Siemens, Univ. of Victoria

29. The Brave New World of Scholarly Books: Publishing in Tempestuous Times

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 410, LA Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Alan Rauch, Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte

Speakers: James J. Bono, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York; Gregory M. Britton, Getty Publications; Jennifer Crewe, Columbia Univ. Press; Leslie Mitchner, Rutgers Univ. Press; Eric Zinner, New York Univ. Press

The current status of scholarly book publishing is confusing, troubling, and yet, from some perspectives, about to embrace a new and potentially exciting digital future.  How can scholars who don’t have regular access to editors and publishers begin to sort this out? This roundtable opens up some of the questions inherent in the “crisis” in scholarly publishing and explores the very real changes, digital and fiscal, that are altering the world of scholarly books.

For online information and handouts, write to

52. E-Books as Bibliographical Objects

1:45–3:00 p.m., Platinum Salon C, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Bibliography and Textual Studies

Presiding: Matthew Gary Kirschenbaum, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

1. “The Enkindling Reciter: Performing Reading and Concealing Texts in the E-Book Demo,” Alan Galey, Univ. of Toronto

2. “Open Objects: From Book to Nook,” Andrew Piper, McGill Univ.

3. “The Kindle Advertiser: E-Books, Advertising, and the Evanescent Edition,” Zahr Said Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia

4. “Virtual Reading on,” Yung-Hsing Wu, Univ. of Louisiana, Lafayette

125. Literary Research in/and Digital Humanities

3:30–4:45 p.m., Diamond Salon 1, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Libraries and Research in Languages and Literatures

Presiding: James Raymond Kelly, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst

Speakers: Heather Bowlby, Univ. of Virginia; Marija Dalbello, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick; Amy Earhart, Texas A&M Univ., College Station; Manuel M. Martin-Rodriguez, Univ. of California, Merced; Susanne Woods, Wheaton Coll., MA; Abby Yochelson, Library of Congress

Respondent: Robert H. Kieft, Occidental Coll.

This session is the inaugural meeting of a new interdisciplinary MLA discussion group formed by librarians in the association for the discussion of matters of mutual interest with scholars. Panelists will present current work, and the group will discuss its future and how it can promote the creation and curation of scholarly collections and archives, publications, research data, and teaching and study tools through professional associations and on their own campuses.

For abstracts, visit

141. New Thresholds of Interpretation? Paratexts in the Digital Age

5:15–6:30 p.m., Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the International Society for the Study of Narrative

Presiding: Dorothee Birke, Freiburg Inst. for Advanced Studies

1. “Bootleg Paratextuality and Media Aesthetics: Decay and Distortion in the Borat DVD,” Paul Benzon, Temple Univ., Philadelphia

2. “The Amazon Phenomenon: New Contextual Paratexts of Historiographic Narratives,” Julia Lippert, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

3. “Peritexts and Epitexts in Transitional Electronic Literature: Readers and Paratextual Engagement on Kindles, iPods, and Netbooks,” Ellen M. McCracken, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

150. New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis

5:15–6:30 p.m., 406A, LA Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Meredith L. McGill, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

Speakers: Rosemary G. Feal, MLA

Marc Bousquet, Santa Clara Univ.

Brian Croxall, Emory Univ.

Christopher John Newfield, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Marilee Lindemann, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

This roundtable will examine what role the tools of social networking (e.g., blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube) have played in organizing and communicating about the economic crisis in higher education. One of the goals of the panel will be practical: to share tips and strategies about what works and what doesn’t (and to think critically about how we judge the effectiveness of any particular tool or strategy). Another will be reflective: to provide an opportunity for weighing the benefits and the risks of scholars using these tools to perform work that is often more in the mode of public or professional advocacy than scholarship in the traditional sense.

Friday, 07 January

193. New (and Renewed) Work in Digital Literary Studies: An Electronic Roundtable

8:30–9:45 a.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Association for Computers and the Humanities

Presiding: Bethany Nowviskie, Univ. of Virginia

Speakers: Ernest Cole, Hope Coll.; Randall Cream, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona Coll.; Joseph Gilbert, Univ. of Virginia; Laura C. Mandell, Miami Univ., Oxford; William Albert Pannapacker, Hope Coll.; Douglas Reside, Univ. of Maryland, College Park; Andrew M. Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia; John A. Walsh, Indiana Univ., Bloomington; Matthew Wilkens, Rice Univ.

Projects, groups, and initiatives highlighted in this session build on the editorial and archival roots of humanities scholarship to offer new, explicitly methodological and interpretive contributions to the digital literary scene or to intervene in established patterns of scholarly communication and pedagogical practice. Brief introductions will be followed by simultaneous demonstrations of the presenters’ work at eight computer stations.

For project links and abstracts, visit

218. Analog and Digital: Texts, Contexts, and Networks

10:15–11:30 a.m., Atrium I, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Victoria E. Szabo, Duke Univ.

1. “Digital Networks and Horizontal Textuality,” David S. Roh, Old Dominion Univ.

2. “The Work of the Text in Haggard’s She: Full-Text Searching and Networks of Association,” Robert Steele, George Washington Univ.

3. “Taken Possession Of: What Digital Archives Can Teach Us about Nathaniel Hawthorne, Religious Readers, and Antebellum Reprinting Culture,” Ryan C. Cordell, Univ. of Virginia

For abstracts, visit

222. The Death of the Reader

10:15–11:30 a.m., 409A, LA Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Travis M. Foster, Coll. of Wooster

1. “The Reader Brand: Fictions of the Reader in the Market and the Academy,” Gwen Blume, Mansfield Univ.

2. “Reader versus Reader: Generic Differentiation and the History of Reading,” Travis M. Foster

3. “The Myth of the ‘Real Reader’: Issues in the Historicity of Reading,” Jon P. Klancher, Carnegie Mellon Univ.

Respondent: Thomas Augst, New York Univ.

For abstracts, write to

248. The Dictionary in Print and in the Cloud

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Olympic I, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Michael Hancher, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Speakers: Tim Cassedy, New York Univ.; David L. Porter, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Glenn H. Roe, Univ. of Chicago; Robert Steele, George Washington Univ.

For abstracts, visit

253. The English Bible

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Diamond Salon 2, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Conference on Christianity and Literature and the Division on Literature and Religion

Presiding: Hannibal Hamlin, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

Speakers: Austin Mathew Busch, State Univ. of New York, Brockport; Elizabeth Bell Canon, Univ. of Wisconsin, La Crosse; Andrew J. Fleck, San José State Univ.; Paul Neel, Kent State Univ., Kent; Adam S. Potkay, Coll. of William and Mary; Beth Quitslund, Ohio Univ., Athens

Respondent: Debora Shuger, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

Various 400th-anniverary commemorations of the King James Bible are planned for 2011, and this roundtable session seeks to take part in this occasion for celebration and reflection by being one of the year’s first such events. The King James, or Authorized, Version (1611) is most frequently mentioned as the primary source of biblical influence on subsequent writers, their poetry or prose styles.

282. Paper as Platform or Interface

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Olympic III, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Media and Literature

Presiding: Lisa Gitelman, New York Univ.

1. “The Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper,” Joshua Calhoun, Univ. of Delaware, Newark

2. “The Theory of Paper: Hume, Beattie, Derrida,” Christina Lupton, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor

3. “The Wordsworths’ Daffodils: On the Page, upon the Inward Eye,” Richard Menke, Univ. of Georgia

309. The History and Future of the Digital Humanities

1:45–3:00 p.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Program Committee

Presiding: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona Coll.

Speakers: Brett Bobley, NEH; Katherine D. Harris, San José State Univ.; Alan Liu, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; Tara McPherson, Univ. of Southern California; Bethany Nowviskie, Univ. of Virginia; Stephen J. Ramsay, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln; Susana Ruiz, Univ. of Southern California

This roundtable will bring together many different perspectives, from humanities computing to digital media studies, including senior and junior scholars, research and teaching institutions, and faculty and staff members, so that we might explore the overlap, diffusion, and multiplicity of views of the digital humanities that result.

331. The Open Professoriat: Public Intellectuals on the Social Web

3:30–4:45 p.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Matthew K. Gold, New York City Coll. of Tech., City Univ. of New York

Speakers: Samuel Cohen, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia; Amanda L. French, George Mason Univ.; David Parry, Univ. of Texas, Dallas; Mark L. Sample, George Mason Univ.; Erin Templeton, Converse Coll.; Elizabeth Vincelette, Old Dominion Univ.

This panel will explore the range of possibilities surrounding the use of social media in many aspects of academic life, with particular attention to the ways in which they can help broaden the audience for academic work at a time of economic and institutional crisis in the academy.

397. The Lives That Digital Archives Write

5:15–6:30 p.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Comparative Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Presiding: Ruth E. Mack, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York

1. “Social Networking in the Enlightenment,” Dan M. Edelstein, Stanford Univ.

2. “Working Lives from Digital Sources: London 1690–1800,” Tim Hitchcock, Univ. of Hertfordshire; Robert Shoemaker, Univ. of Sheffield

3. “Mapping the Social Text: Topography, Letters, and Alexander Pope,” Allison Muri, Univ. of Saskatchewan

Saturday, 08 January

431. Textual Scholarship and New Media

8:30–9:45 a.m., Diamond Salon 8, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions

Presiding: Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Université de Montréal

1. “Comic Book Markup Language: An Introduction and Rationale,” John A. Walsh, Indiana Univ., Bloomington

2. “Crowdspeak: Mobile Telephony and TXTual Practice,” Rita Raley, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

3. “Alternate Reality Games and Transmedia Textuality: Interpretive Play and the Immaterial Archive,” Zach Whalen, Univ. of Mary Washington

436. The Institution(alization) of Digital Humanities

8:30–9:45 a.m., Atrium III, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Computer Studies in Language and Literature

Presiding: David Lee Gants, Florida State Univ.

1. “A Media Ecological Approach to Digital Humanities; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love This Dynamic Field,” Kimberly Knight, Univ. of Texas, Dallas

2. “Power, Prestige, and Profession: Digital Humanities in the Age of Academic Anxiety,” Amy Earhart, Texas A&M Univ., College Station

3. “Emerging Dialogue: Librarians and Digital Humanists,” Johanna Drucker, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

474. Social Networking: Web 2.0 Applications for the Teaching of Languages and Literatures

10:15–11:30 a.m., Diamond Salon 2, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Information Technology

Presiding: Barbara Lafford, Arizona State Univ. West

1. “Writing for Nonprofits in Social-Media Environments,” Sean McCarthy, Univ. of Texas, Austin

2. “The Macaulay Eportfolio Collection: A Case Study in the Uses of Social Networking for Learning,” Lauren Klein, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

3. “Social Media, Digital Vernaculars, and Language Education,” Steven Thorne, Portland State Univ.

For abstracts, write to

521. Close Reading the Digital

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Atrium I, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Jeremy Douglass, Univ. of California, San Diego

1. “The Code of Hacktavism: A Critical Code Study Case Study,” Mark Marino, Univ. of Southern California

2. “Close Reading Campaign Rhetorics: Procedurality and,” James J. Brown, Wayne State Univ.

3. “Criminal Code: The Procedural Logic of Crime in Video Games,” Mark L. Sample, George Mason Univ.

Respondent: Matthew Gary Kirschenbaum, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

For abstracts, visit after 1 Dec.

541. Electronic Literature: Off the Screen

1:45–3:00 p.m., Plaza II, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Jessica Pressman, Yale Univ.

1. “A Pixel or a Grain of Sand: Jenny Holzer’s Projections,” Leisha J. Jones, Penn State Univ., University Park

2. “Locative Narrative: Reorganizing Space in Mobile E-Literature,” Mark Marino, Univ. of Southern California

3. “E-Literature as Event: Seeing Space and Time in Kinetic Typography,” Jeremy Douglass, Univ. of California, San Diego

For abstracts, write to

577. Print Culture and Undergraduate Literary Study

1:45–3:00 p.m., Platinum Salon A, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing

Presiding: Lisa Gitelman, New York Univ.

1. “Using Early English Books Online in the Undergraduate Classroom,” Joanne Diaz, Illinois Wesleyan Univ.

2. “Benjamin Franklin’s Compositions,” Jonathan Senchyne, Cornell Univ.

3. “Not Necessarily Natives: Teaching Digital Media with Book Technology (and Vice Versa),” Lisa Marie Maruca, Wayne State Univ.

Respondent: David Lee Gants, Florida State Univ.

For abstracts, visit after 15 Dec.

596. Will Publications Perish? The Paradigm Shift in Scholarly Communication

3:30–4:45 p.m., Plaza I, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Alan Rauch, Univ. of North Carolina, Charlotte

Speakers: Cheryl E. Ball, Illinois State Univ.; Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Pepperdine Univ.; Laurence D. Roth, Susquehanna Univ.; Andrew M. Stauffer, Univ. of Virginia

The scholarly essay, once the coin of the realm in academia, is being transformed by digital technologies. Questions about the future viability of learned journals, to say nothing of practices such as peer review, confront us all. This session is an effort to deal with those questions directly and initiate a dialogue about how various branches of the scholarly community can respond to ongoing and inevitable challenges.

For talking points, visit

606. Methods of Research in New Media

3:30–4:45 p.m., Platinum Salon J, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the Division on Methods of Literary Research

Presiding: Maura Carey Ives, Texas A&M Univ., College Station

1. “Be Online or Be Irrelevant,” David Parry, Univ. of Texas, Dallas

2. “Applied Media Theory: Where Digital Art Meets Humanities Research,” Marcel O’Gorman, Univ. of Waterloo

3. “Augmenting Fiction: Storytelling, Locative Media, and the New Media Lab,” Carolyn Guertin, Univ. of Texas, Arlington

617. Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) and the Scholarly Edition

5:15–6:30 p.m., Diamond Salon 8, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Committee on the New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare

Presiding: Paul Werstine, Univ. of Western Ontario

Speakers: Michael Choi, Univ. of Western Ontario; Stan Ruecker, Univ. of Alberta; Raymond G. Siemens, Univ. of Victoria

Raymond G. Siemens’s Annotation:

Paper 1: “Bringing Architectures of the Book into the Digital Age.” Michael Choi and the INKE Textual Studies Research Group

Paper 2: “Introducing the Dynamic Table of Contexts for the Online

Topics for discussion will include bringing architectures of the book into the digital age, introducing the dynamic table of contexts for the online scholarly edition, and supporting the scholarly edition in electronic form.

639. Where’s the Pedagogy in Digital Pedagogy?

5:15–6:30 p.m., Platinum Salon F, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Nirmal H. Trivedi, Georgia Inst. of Tech.

Speakers: Danielle Barrios, Univ. of Ulster; Kristine Blair, Bowling Green State Univ.; Joy Bracewell, Univ. of Georgia; Andrew Famiglietti, Georgia Inst. of Tech.; Antero Garcia, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; Jill Marie Parrott, Univ. of Georgia; Christine Tulley, Univ. of Findlay

This session will share the great number of practical and philosophical questions surrounding what it means to “teach digitally” today. We want to focus attention away from “toolism”—a preoccupation with new technologies for the sake of newness and technical power—and direct attention toward the pedagogy that technology and collaboration can unveil.

For abstracts, write to

Sunday, 09 January

743. What the Digital Does to Reading

10:15–11:30 a.m., Diamond Salon 8, J. W. Marriott

Program arranged by the MLA Committee on Information Technology

Presiding: Laura C. Mandell, Miami Univ., Oxford

1. “What Would Jesus Google? Plural Reading in the Digital Archive,” Daniel Allen Shore, Grinnell Coll.

2. “Social Book Catalogs and Reading: Shifting Paradigms, Humanizing Databases,” Renee Hudson, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; Kimberly Knight, Univ. of Texas, Dallas

3. “Illuminating Hidden Paths: Reading and Annotating Texts in Many Dimensions,” Julie Meloni, Washington State Univ., Pullman

For abstracts, visit after 15 Nov.

751. Writing and Curatorship: The History of the Book

10:15–11:30 a.m., 309, LA Convention Center

A special session

Presiding: Jeffrey Knight, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor

1. “On the Margins of History: Drama and Reauthorship in the Interregnum Pamphlets,” Shannon Miller, Temple Univ., Philadelphia

2. “The Polite History of Our Time: Modernist Reclamation of Nineteenth-Century Trash,” Katherine D. Harris, San José State Univ.

3. “Scrapping the Self: The Dictates and Freedoms of the Arranged Page,” Elline Lipkin, Univ. of California, Los Angeles

792. Sound Reproduction and the Literary

1:45–3:00 p.m., Diamond Salon 6, J. W. Marriott

A special session

Presiding: Jentery Sayers, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

1. “Sound as Sensory Modality in Electronic Literature,” Dene M. Grigar, Washington State Univ., Vancouver

2. “‘Cause That’s the Way the World Turns’: John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday and the Mnemonic Jukebox,” Jürgen E. Grandt, Gainesville State Coll., GA

3. “Analog History: Kevin Young’s To Repel Ghosts and the Textuality of the Turntable,” Paul Benzon, Temple Univ., Philadelphia

Respondent: Jentery Sayers

For abstracts, examples, and biographies, visit after 1 Dec.

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

October 31, 2010

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.

Response to Collaborative Reading of Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript

August 4, 2010

First, I would like to thank Anna for organizing this reading of my book and all the reviewers for taking the time to read and evaluate it so carefully. This is my first book, and I had expected a two- to three-year wait before reading reviews of it. I certainly did not expect to have encountered a set of seven thoughtful reviews within two months of its publication — one of the many virtues of online collaborative reviews, a subject Eleanor recently discussed. I’ve learned a great deal from these reviews and the comments that followed. In fact, because everyone has raised so many interesting issues, I’m finding it difficult to begin. I will try to address one central issue raised by each reviewer, weaving into my discussion some of the responses to those review posts. I will necessarily have to omit some of the points that have been raised.

Dave Mazella began the discussion by asking the important question of how we talk about eighteenth-century book history: “do we have, or need, an alternative to the unitary term ‘print culture’ in our analysis of the eighteenth century?”. I’m glad to have the chance to address this question, since for the most part I avoided doing so in my book. In fact, I use the term “print culture” only once (205) and then with scare quotes. My avoidance of the term does not signal that I think it has no use in scholarly discussions; rather, I think its value depends greatly on the context of the larger scholarly project in which it is used. Macro-level investigations that chart the major shifts between the pre- and post-Gutenberg eras will depend greatly on an operative term such as “print culture” (obviously I’m thinking of Eisenstein here). But since my book was limited to not just Britain in the first half of the eighteenth century but also to a single author in that milieu, I thought that such a micro-level study would help to show us the limitations and even misconceptions that such macro-level terms imply when used in a more limited disciplinary context.

To put this in more concrete ways: we should not expect that any coherent definition of print culture will encompass such widely different artifacts as a massive folio edition of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion as well as a broadside poem or single issue of a newspaper. Permanence and ephemerality co-exist here, and the more that a conceptual term embraces paradox and contradiction the less utility it will have for the purposes of definition and argument. In addition, whenever examining any time period up close, one will find overlapping and competing “print cultures” that vary according to cost, format, genre, etc. Perhaps the ultimate lesson is that in such narrowed contexts the term has greater value in the plural form, evidencing a kind of multi-cultural media world.

And to answer Mazella’s question from another direction: it would depend on what else we know of other authors in the period, writing in other genres and not necessarily in metropolitan areas. I had hoped to suggest ways in which Swift was or was not typical of his age in regard to the use of print and manuscript, but I came to recognize that much more needs to be studied before one could begin to address that topic. Studying the examples that Eleanor and Al Coppola mention is one good place to start.

This issue connects to Eleanor’s question about the ability to conduct research in this field given the materials that have or have not survived, especially for non-canonical authors. When I started doing textually and bibliographically related research in graduate school, I had assumed that the major discoveries in this area have already been made and that there was little left to do. But I have come to learn that there is much more to find and many more questions to ask that haven’t been considered yet. In addition, there are now some great research tools for the study of manuscripts in our period, especially for manuscript verse. Eleanor alluded to Alexander Lindsay’s Swift entry for the Index of English Literary Manuscripts, a compendium that is limited to “major” authors from 1500-1900. But there are other resources to consult to learn about major and so-called minor authors from our period. Those interested in further study should consult the following:

I am not as aware of similar resources for non-verse material, but now and then something interesting will turn up while searching Archives Hub.

I would also like to acknowledge Eleanor’s especially perceptive reading of my title.

Ashley Marshall writes thoughtfully about the ways we might revisit Swift’s canon and his attitude toward his own canon, and suggests that Swift’s attitude might change, perhaps in unpredictable ways. I’m greatly interested in such issues as well, even though I mostly avoided dealing with them in my book. (I deliberately avoided addressing works that have a doubtful status in Swift’s canon; such doubtful attributions are receiving renewed scrutiny in the Cambridge Edition of Swift currently being edited and published). Ashley cites two examples: “Cadenus and Vanessa” and “On the Words ‘Brother Protestants and Fellow Christians.’” I think “Cadenus and Vanessa” deserves more investigation about its publishing and textual history, and I haven’t done the necessary research to comment on it at length — except to say that in publishing it in the joint Miscellanies Swift perhaps defused the appeal of those unauthorized collections that contained it.

The example of “On the Words ‘Brother Protestants and Fellow Christians’” shows just how variable a poem’s publication history can be. Ashely is correct that this poem appeared in Faulkner’s 1735 edition; it did so with this prefatory and canny remark: “The following Poem having been printed in London, we have thought proper to insert it here, not doubting but it will be acceptable to our Readers; although we cannot say who is the Author.” (A similar remark prefaced the lampoon “The Virtues of Sid Hamet” in the 1711 Miscellanies.) Bettesworth’s name was fully obscured by asterisks in Faulkner’s text, but the “Sweats-worth” rhyme still gives it away. And it’s worth noting that “On the Words …” was added quite late to Faulkner’s edition, as it appears in the final full gathering of volume 2. So we’re dealing with a situation in which a poem (written while Faulkner was printing the edition) appears in an authorized collection with a note explicitly questioning its canonical status (though with a nudge and a wink). Who exactly was involved in this decision? Did Swift suggest this poem’s inclusion? Or did he pretend he knew nothing about the poem, which shifted the decision onto Faulkner about whether to include it or not? In such situations, Ashley is right to wonder exactly how if at all authorial control is being exercised. Clearly, Faulkner ran a risk in printing the poem, and his boldness was repaid in 1736 when Bettesworth had Faulkner arrested for publishing some relatively mild comments.

A final thought about Swift’s canon: even if Swift did not think he was assembling a canon, some of those in his circle did. Here I’m thinking especially of Charles Ford, who was perhaps preparing an edition of Swift’s works long before Swift was (see the letters between Swift and Ford in 1733). We have here more material for a study of social authorship, a subject I pick up on below.

Randy Robertson rightly emphasizes the need for scholars, perhaps especially those working in seemingly dry subject areas such as textual studies, to craft narratives that engage their readers. And I agree that Robert Darnton is able to entertain his readers while also educating them in a way that I am still trying to master. Perhaps I did a better job with the narrative in Chapter 5 than in Chapter 4, but that is certainly for readers to judge. Often, and especially in the second half of my book, I am simultaneously working with two narratives: the narrative of those writing and publishing in the past and the narrative of reconstructing their activities and the complex textual histories that resulted. At times I found it a challenge to attend to both narratives; in a sense, I had to be true to the information available to us, including the often fragmentary nature of that information, and tell a story that would maintain the reader’s interest.

One issue I struggled with while trying to create appropriate narrative frameworks for these chapters was that I often lacked knowledge about how these texts (whether in print, manuscript, or a combination of both) were received by their readers. In Chapter 6 I attempted a necessarily speculative model about that reception and in Chapter 2 I could draw from readers’ recreations of Swift’s writings, but elsewhere I thought I didn’t even have a basis upon which to construct a speculative model. It seems to me that in order to create a compelling narrative in book history, one needs the perspective of both the producers (writers, publishers, etc.) and the consumers (“regular” readers, the political authorities, etc.). Attending to both will provide a dramatic element to sustain the narrative, and this may be one reason why Darnton’s writings are so enjoyable to read (in addition to his own skill as a writer).

While commenting about “The Legion Club,” Al Coppola wonders about the status of the final couplets added to the poem, shrewdly referring to their inclusion as “a moustache on the Mona Lisa.” I suspect those couplets will always remain a bit of a mystery as to who was responsible for adding them. I gave my arguments for why I believe Swift was responsible, though Coppola is right to explore other possibilities. I wish I knew of some way to solve this puzzle with greater confidence, but I don’t.

Coppola’s remarks gave rise to some interesting comments on the nature of social authorship as it relates to Swift. I’m glad that this topic generated such interest, since we need to do much more to situate works by Swift and other canonical authors in relation to works by lesser-known figures. For my current project, James Woolley and I are editing Swift’s complete poems for the Cambridge edition, and we plan to include the poems that Swift’s poems responded to (Harold Williams had also included such poems) as well as some poems that were part of a verse exchange that Swift’s verse participated in. We hope that doing so will allow readers to examine Swift’s poems in dialogue with those of his contemporaries, including those contemporaries whose identities are not known. We’re also going to pay careful attention to canonical issues and the extent to which we can attribute specific poems to Swift with varying levels of confidence and uncertainty. James has written of the need to free ourselves from “the tyranny of the individual talent” and take seriously the possibility and even likelihood that one of Swift’s contemporaries may have written a poem otherwise attributed to him (“The Canon of Swift’s Poems: The Case of ‘An Apology to the Lady Carteret,’” in Reading Swift: Papers from the Second Munster Symposium on Jonathan Swift, p. 246). In a brief entry on “Attribution” for the recent Oxford Companion to the Book, I referred to “the centripetal force of the major author” to describe the power that a major figure exerts on contemporary works of uncertain authorship. I also wrote that “scholars who offer claims of attribution would do well to remember that the vast majority of works are written by minor authors, including authors whose identities have long vanished from historical memory.”

A recurring phenomenon in studying historical reader response is the way in which readers adapt and use an author’s works for their own purposes, whether or not such purposes align with those of the author. That phenomenon is no less operative among readers of scholarly works today. I write this in part to justify David Brewer’s interest in taking my research on a ride of his choosing, while graciously welcoming me aboard. I would be very interested in knowing with greater clarity just which printed texts prompted readers to take up pen and annotate. Then as now I suspect some readers did not want to “mar” their personal copies; others perhaps couldn’t help doing so. It’s worth noting that for some time collectors (and thus libraries) viewed such annotated copies as less desirable, a trend not followed by collectors such as James Osborn, as can be seen by viewing the many items he collected now at the Beinecke Library. A brief research visit to the Beinecke will remind us how much more work there is to do with eighteenth-century manuscript materials (including annotated print copies). So one wonders if the surviving evidence in libraries is to some extent biased in a way that obscures the act of annotation. Interested readers might consult H. J. Jackson’s Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, and (I hope) work by David in the near future.

Are there any copies of Tristram Shandy that in fact contain a sketch of the Widow Wadman on the blank page? I believe that David has researched this topic.

I’m also grateful to David for alerting me to yet another annotated copy of Swift’s “Verses.” James and I are always interested in learning about these. The ones that have escaped our attention are likely to be in libraries with good general collections but too rarely frequented by eighteenth-century specialists.

I’m somewhat relieved that David’s discovery doesn’t dramatically alter my argument, though as Anna notes, that is a possibility and one that I expect to happen at some point. I’m very grateful to her for making this truly collaborative reading possible. I’ve learned much from each of you, and want to thank you again for devoting part of your summer to my book.


Karian’s Chapter 6: The Authorial Strategies and Material Texts of “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”

August 2, 2010

Steve opens his final chapter with the frank confession that “as complicated as the textual histories of ‘On Poetry: A Rapsody’ and ‘The Legion Club’ are, that of ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift’ (1739) is even more complicated”: “the early texts of this poem survive in a bewildering array of print, manuscript, and blank space” (166). Given that this chapter is likely to get more use than the preceding two (simply because it’s the only one which discusses a poem that makes it into the undergraduate classroom with any regularity), one might think that such bewilderment would be off-putting: a limit case, perhaps, from which we would gladly back away. I’d like to contend something close to the opposite. That is, the real utility of Steve’s patient survey of the “bewildering array” of versions of the “Verses” (beyond its lucid sketch of a ridiculously complicated phenomenon) lies precisely in the picture it paints of a world in which print, manuscript, oral performance, geography, and the varying degrees of knowledge and interest which readers bring to a text all not only intersect, but conspire to produce a situation in which “variability” is “integral to the work’s existence” (184). The “Verses,” for all their complications, are thus not a limit case so much as what Italian microhistorians like to call the “exceptional normal,” an instance whose apparent oddity lays bare the norms and rules of a much more widely played game. Steve doesn’t go this far and perhaps for his purposes he doesn’t want or need to do so. But the potential to use the “Verses” as a means of better grasping the “variability” “integral” to all sorts of eighteenth-century texts certainly exists and I, for one, would like to see what happens if we presume the normality, even the quotidianness of “bewildering arrays.”

I think the best way to launch, however speculatively, this line of thought is to start with the second half of Steve’s chapter, in which he reconstructs the busy life led by the “Verses” across the 1730s. Here’s the short version. It would seem that Swift first showed a manuscript of the “Verses” to his friends in Ireland, some of whom (like Laetitia Pilkington) memorized significant chunks of it and then repeated them around town to, in Swift’s words, “provoke peoples curiosity and a longing they had to see it in print” (Swift to Lord Carteret, 23 April 1733, quoted on 175). Then, once the poem had some oral currency in Dublin, Swift wrote a burlesque of it, “The Life and Genuine Character of Doctor Swift” and got it published, first in London and then in Dublin, with all sorts of non-Swiftean poetic and typographic flourishes, like italics, dashes, and triplets, in order to throw off those who might suspect its true authorship. Here, obviously, geography matters: Swift was attempting to trick those “Dubliners” who had “heard parts of the poem recited” into thinking that they “recognized the ‘Life’ as an inept reconstruction of the ‘Verses’” (179), whereas readers elsewhere would most likely regard it as a clumsy stand-alone attempt to ventriloquize the Dean. Several of Swift’s English friends then arranged for an edition of the “Verses” themselves (in part to counter the supposedly fraudulent “Life”), but, for various reasons, altered or omitted a number of lines and all of the notes from the text as, we think, Swift had written it, and inserted several (typographically glaring) passages from the “Life.” Finally, George Faulkner brought out a Dublin edition which included some of the material left out of the London edition. However, the printed editions all contained extensive blanks, both in the verse and in (in Faulkner’s version) the notes, which were to be filled in with some combination of guesswork and copying from various quasi-authorized manuscript additions to other copies in circulation. The result, as Steve’s figures 9 through 14 show, is indeed “variability”: “no two of the thirty-seven known annotated copies are exactly alike” (184).

Now Steve does a splendid job sifting through this mess (which is far more complicated than my little summary can convey) and showing what is lost when we read or teach the “Verses” in a modern edition which supplies all that in the initial editions was left blank or completed by hand. For example, Faulkner’s edition insists that “The          S—-, if you nam’d, / With what Impatience he declaim’d!” Depending on the copy one consults, these blanks are filled in as the “Irish Senate,” the “British Senate,” the “Bench or Senate,” the “cheating South-Sea,” or the “Whiggish Spirit.” All fit the meter; all are plausible objects of Swift’s “Impatience.” “Irish Senate” is probably what Swift actually wrote, but to simply print that in a modern edition forecloses the other possibilities in a way that is profoundly unfaithful to the experience of anyone encountering the poem in the late 1730s. So far, so good and it would certainly be enough to stop here, having (once again) demonstrated the abiding inability of most modern editorial practices to accurately represent the complexity of early modern textuality. But we’ve heard that critique before and most of the remaining problems are sufficiently intractable that I suspect further critique isn’t going to get us very far, so I’d like instead to see if we can push a little harder and come up with some useful ways of thinking about what I take to be the real implications of Steve’s work, the places Jonathan Swift in Print and Manuscript can take us (whether or not Steve wants to come along for the ride).

As an initial gambit, I’d like to pose two questions which come out of what Steve does in the second half of this chapter: 1) “When presented with a printed text (full of blanks or otherwise), what could induce readers to pick up their pens and write?” and 2) “Why should they do so so dramatically more with the ‘Verses’ than most other texts?” Seriously considering the first can, I think, help us better grasp the sheer “variability” at work here. It’s not just a matter of differing levels of knowledge or access to an authorized- or authoritative-seeming copy which one can transcribe; it’s also a matter of will and desire. If one gets a reference (say, that the two-syllable blank which rhymes with “Thing” and refers to someone who has a consort can probably be filled in with “the King”), then why bother writing it down, especially given the less than spontaneous technology of eighteenth-century pens? That is, Peter Stallybrass is probably right that print’s “most radical effect was its incitement to writing by hand,” but that incitement is remarkably variable. Compare Steve’s Figure 9 (from a copy at Penn) to the same page in a copy owned by Ohio State and to the British Library copy which was filmed and scanned for ECCO:

The Penn copy plausibly fills in the asterixed-out lines, but leaves the dashed-out names and the triple asterix standing in for “the Queen” blank. The Ohio State copy completes the names (perhaps incorrectly), but not the royal title or any of the whole lines of verse. And the British Library copy remains resolutely blank. How can we even begin to explain the differences between these copies, given that they are differences not simply of degree but of apparent interest as well? Yet it’s exceedingly difficult to gauge that interest on the basis of what made it onto the page, since there’s no reason to presume that, say, the readers of the Penn and British Library copies were incapable of coming up with a trochaic woman’s name beginning with S (whether it be “Susan,” “Suffolk,” or anything else). Perhaps they were; perhaps the allusion was so obvious as to be unworthy of being written down; perhaps actually recording one’s guess verged too close to libel (note how the Penn copy is still dashing out some of its more charged words); perhaps something else. I suspect that in most cases we can’t ever know with any certainty, but until we try, however speculatively and tentatively, to account for not only the complex relationships between “Print” and “Manuscript” as totalized entities, but also the emotionally fraught, idiosyncratic, geographically and generically varying reading, writing, and listening practices out of which those abstractions are created, we will continue to fail to do justice to “arrays” far less ostentiously “bewildering” than the “Verses.” Such an endeavor will, of course, be the work of many hands and it’s wholly unreasonable to expect Steve to have fully cleared the path. But he’s gone further than a casual reading of this chapter might suggest and I think that at least the beginnings of the kind of work I’m calling for (and, I hope, in my other writing engaging in) can be seen in his wonderfully shrewd passing comments on the ways in which the sheer size of the blanks (e.g., in figure 12) solicits a roughly proportionate amount of penmanship, even if it’s only squiggles as a kind of “etc.” by other means:

Perhaps we could start with something like “the blank proposes, but the pen disposes” and then start to figure out the circumstances under which such proposals are compelling or attractive (and when a blank even registers as such)?

Doing so will, of course, require us to pay close attention to the generic and rhetorical occasion of the blank-filling, since, as anyone who’s ever gone trawling for marginalia can testify, manuscript additions to printed texts are, shall we say, distributed rather unevenly. There are far more annotated almanacs and arithmetic books out there than annotated works of the sort which people in English departments tend to care about. But even within the latter category, the distribution is far from uniform: topical and satiric works, especially verse, get a lot more scribal attention than, say, most novels. Here’s where I think we could usefully bring in the otherwise anomalous first part of Steve’s chapter: his discussion of “Authorship in the ‘Verses on the Death’.” It’s an insightful account of the structure of the poem and usefully explains many things which have long puzzled us (e.g., why the speaker at the Rose should claim to be “no judge” of Swift’s “works in verse and prose” and yet spend most of his 180-plus lines praising their effects). But it’s curiously unintegrated into not only the rest of the chapter, but the book as a whole, unless (and this remains almost entirely implicit) we presume that it is no accident that the work which incited so much writing by hand was a work which meditates on the ways in which authors are entangled with and ultimately dependent on their publishers and readers. If so (and this is very much the ledge on which I want to go out; Steve need not accompany me if he doesn’t want to), then it would seem that one of the factors which might predict a particularly “thick” clustering of manuscript augmentations would be whether or not a text is concerned with authorship or otherwise rhetorically doubling the situation of its own reading. That is, it would seem (on the basis of Steve’s findings and my own ongoing research) that authors were particularly good to think with and that, in turn, seems, at least in some cases, to have translated into their being good to write with. Determining the logic underlying which cases were or were not useful or compelling in this way is a project still beyond us, but once again, I’d like to suggest, Steve’s work can at least cast some light down the proper path if we take seriously his closing contention that the various ways in which readers filled in the blanks of “The           S—-” “may reflect the readers’ own sense of which objects deserved the most abuse” (203), since the structure of not only that line but the entire poem makes the blank-filling tantamount to enlisting Swift on one’s own side, whether it be against Parliament, the Bench, the Bubble, or Sir Bob. If so, then one of the ways in which we can make sense of the “bewildering array” we find is to try to reconstruct not only the actual sociability which produced a given copy (e.g., who jotted down what after encountering which other copy or recitation), but also the imagined sociability between a particular reader, other readers, and the author—which obviously can, but need not, overlap with “what really happened.”

So how, ultimately, after taking Steve’s “bewildering array” and piling conjecture upon conjecture on it (perhaps making it all the more “bewildering” in the process), can I claim that the “Verses” represent a case of the “exceptional normal”? Two answers. The first is simply by fiat: as with all forms of conjectural historiography, the proof of the pudding will lie in the eating. If we can see things about “the normal” state of early modern textuality which we would not have otherwise been able to notice by treating the “Verses” as if they were the key to all (or at least some) mythologies, then they’ve done their work and so are “exceptional,” at least in this sense. And if we can’t, then they’re not, at least in this line of inquiry or these hands. But I would also appeal to the archival experience of the readers of EMOB (including Steve himself) and ask them to recall how many times they’ve encountered a printed text marked by an eighteenth-century hand or an account of a somewhat garbled oral transmission as a part of polite (or impolite) sociability or the trace of a reading which is clearly shaped by the uneven geographic dissemination of information. Such things have been a routine part of every visit to every rare book room I’ve ever made, not to mention a good chunk of my use of full-text databases, my perusal of countless letters and diaries, etc. In short, the world of the “Verses” looks a lot like the world of eighteenth-century reading practices, as I’ve come to understand them over the last decade and a half. If that corresponds with your own sense of this world, then I hope you’ll join me in applauding not only Steve’s very substantial accomplishment in this book, but also the even more promising vistas that his inquiry opens up. Like, apparently, the figure of “Dr. S—-, D.S.P.D.,” he’s awfully good to think with.

Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

June 17, 2010

It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers