Daily Archives: August 31, 2006

Early editions in scholarship and pedagogy

Thus far I haven’t really discussed my other work. Yes, I am happily a new instructor of British Lit at Queens College, but I’m also a research fellow in a private collection of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century materials housed in the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center. One of my duties in the collection is to connect the items there with scholars who could make use of them, either in their own work or in their classes. In doing so, I’ve found that many of those I’ve contacted think using early editions and resources sounds like a really great idea, but they’re not exactly sure why one would take the time to do so.

In response to my invitations, scholars seem to express one or more of the following attitudes toward special collections:

1. Special collections are for book-fetishists. Let’s not get bogged down in the ooh-ahh materiality of the book when we want to talk about the ideas in the text.

2. Special collections are only useful if you’re putting together an edition. Textual presentation and variations are really only of interest to scholars of textual history.

3. Special collections are like zoos for books. We’re glad someone is preserving all those old pamphlets, maps, and out-of-print books in case someone, maybe a grad student, decides to study them.

4. Special collections are giving way to online resources that preserve older books’ images and texts. Who would go to a special collection when they can simply click around online and get the same experience?

5. Special collections librarians are probably totally swamped with appointments. Why bother them when I can get most of what I need from new editions and the scholarship of my predecessors?

These are attitudes that I think I held, to some extent, before I began working in the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room. I went to lectures held in the Reading Room and admired all the lovely bindings, wondered what was in them, and then went home. I never took the time to ask what was there and how it could be of use to me. During the only experiences I’d had in special collections, I’d oohed and ahhed over the bookness of a particularly exciting first edition, but I had only occasionally used them for research. I didn’t fully understand that one could read the things.

When I began working in the Reading Room, I spent a solid month or so getting giddy over pulling out a 1623 edition of Bacon or a beautiful little vellum-bound Sentimental Journey. I thrilled over the maps, the slips of early American money, and the letters in secretary hand, which were, at the time, unreadable to me in a magical way. When I opened the 1651 Leviathan for the first time, I think my heart stopped. That is to say, I had a big crush on the collection for a long time. Like a crush, it was both hyper-emotional and superficial, and it yielded little in the way of useful knowledge.

As time went by and I explored the collection further, I found that one could very easily find and read around on almost any topic of historical interest in the period. Because the collection is mostly non-fiction, it contains things you rarely find in new editions, like descriptions of prisons, recipes, theatrical reviews, travel journals, colonization accounts, legal documents, and descriptions of foreign lands for the curious people back home. All of these things appear in the fiction of the era and are important for our understanding of the period, yet English scholars mostly know about them from the fiction itself, or from the descriptions given us by other scholars. After spending time surrounded by piles of these books, I find they have become a cornerstone for the breadth of knowledge I’d like to gain about the era. They aren’t merely fetishes anymore.

I wonder if the fetishism of old books isn’t a product of the digital revolution. Just as, when the printing press made texts cheaper and more abundant, the idea of the manuscript text gained a certain magical, noble power, the book itself may be gaining a kind of distant, reverential regard as digital texts become the more common source of information and entertainment. As graduate students more easily find primary sources and scanned texts online, we find it less necessary to learn how to use special collections for research, and we therefore develop a silly kind of awe for old books that keeps us from using them.

I have been trying, in my small way, to bring friends in the field down to the Reading Room so they can see how easy it is to find materials of great interest and usefulness. It’s true that digital collections are amazingly wonderful and useful, and I am a great advocate for digitizing everything to make it even more searchable and universally accessible, but until we do, I hope we still find these rare items, learn from them, and keep them alive in our work.

Of those of us here, in our different disciplines, I wonder what attitudes we have toward using special collections in research and pedagogy. Do you take your students to special collections? Do they find uses for the materials? Do you use special collections for your own research? If not, why not? If so, what do you get out of the experience?

Populations and Catastrophes?

Since this is Katrina week on the Gulf Coast, in which newspapers around the country ruminate over the depopulation of one of this region’s most interesting cities, I’ve been thinking about natural catastrophes and the sometimes hectic, sometimes protracted flows of populations in and out of cities. Here in Houston, we hear about the conditions in New Orleans every day, and we still have about 100,000 people living here who may or may not return to New Orleans, whether it gets rebuilt or not.

When I think about our period, at least in terms of canonical literary writings, I can only come up with two events of this type that made their way into literary representation; the great Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the Great Plague of London (1665). The first appears most famously in Candide (1759), the second in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). (I’d love to hear other candidates for this list, but these were all I could come up with, offhand)

One of the most interesting things about this text is its focus upon the city, or really the city’s population, as the chief protagonist for its narrative, such as it is. As my students always remark, it is a remarkably Foucauldean text, able to hold in view simultaneously a wealth of individual stories, including the narrator, along with the responses and decisions, both rational and irrational, of the authorities charged with protecting the city. But the most consequential Defoe made in his representation was his insistence that no individual story could stand in for the whole. H.F. is a cypher to us, and his responses really have no more authority than anyone else’s in this text. The text is filled with interesting dialogues involving people we meet only once, and whose ultimate fate we never learn. Everyone, including H.F., is just part of the larger ebb and flow Defoe is recounting.

As a result of this emphasis upon the population, this is a text with plenty of pathos, but not much sentiment. Part of it comes from the inclusion of non-literary documents like the Bills of Mortality, but part of it from the refusal to remain at the level of individual tragedy, which lends the text its astringency, as well as its cumulative force. We are made to feel that we, like the epidemic, cannot linger over any particular scene:

It was observable then, that this Calamity of the People made them very humble; for now, for about nine Weeks together, there died near a thousand a-Day, for about nine Weeks together, one day with another, even by the account of the weekly Bills, which yet I have Reason to be assur’d never gave a full Account, by many thousands; the Confusion being such, and the Carts working in the Dark, when they carried the Dead, that in some Places no account at all was kept, but they work’d on; the Clerks and Sextons not attending for Weeks together, and not knowing what Number they carried (p. 95, in Wall’s Penguin edn.).

When I tried to think of comparable accounts, I was stumped. I suspect that pamphlets or semons might contain similar materials, or maybe travel narratives or abolitionist writings. I suspect that the kinds of legal documents Sharon works with might have stuff like this. But I’d love to hear about other works that try to document the flows of populations, especially in response to natural disasters.

Any thoughts, or candidates for inclusion?

Best wishes,