Saturday, June 28, 2008


At tea on Friday (the Folger heartily endorses everyone in the Library to stop for 3:00 tea--a great practice that is fruitful in ways beyond caffeine intake) with a couple of friends, I was struck by some of the oddities of blogging. Marshall Grossman was talking about the blog he writes for the Huffington Post, and about how bits of his blog crop up all over the blogosphere. Blogs are tremendously self-replicating that way: lots of them consist primarily of quotes from and links to other blogs.

Marshall was talking about how disconcerting it is to see his name and his words show up marshalled to the service of someone else's agenda. That, of course, is true for print essays as well--we all take other scholars' insights and use them to help shape our own. But what struck me is how much easier that it with blogs. You just cut-and-paste and there it is! Right now, I'm working in "compose" mode in Blogger, and there's a button with a double-quotation mark on it that will automatically format what I select into a block quotation. It's like they knew people were doing it all the time!

What this conversation made me realize was how much today's blogging is like early modern commonplacing. You copy down pithy sayings, observations, facts, and whatever else strikes you and collect them into your notebook. In the early modern period, copying them down was often only the first step; after that you would transfer them into another book, this time organized under subject headings. Hamlet does it:
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain,
My tables! Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain
The tables Hamlet refers to are a writing tablet in which he literally notes this commonplace. Commonplacing is a Renaissance practice and habit of thought that you can find in traces throughout the period's writings.

It turns out that my recognition of a link between blogging and commonplacing is, well, a commonplace. It's even in Wikipedia's entry on commonplacing. How banal is that? Less banal is this tumblelog, Commonplacing, which uses short quotes and a layout of boxes juxtaposing quotations.**

But while the recognition of all this ease of assembling quotes into a blog or a commonplace book might have been noticed, less commented on is my second observation: The ease with which the technology of cutting-and-pasting and of pre-formatted WSIWYG editing choices enable bloggers to take other people's words and incorporate them into their own blog, and in so doing, to essentially assume ownership of those words.

And this is what strikes me as the real connection between blogging and commonplacing. One of the disconcerting things, to a modern student, in looking at many early modern commonplace books, is that they do not tend to record the names of sources. A writer will commonplace a sonnet, but not the name of the poet. Put into a personal commonplace book, that poem becomes part of the property and identity of the transcriber, not the author. It's a very different conception of ownership of text: today, that would be plagiarism, would it not? Haven't politicians seen their candidacies fail for such things?

What I am describing is not plagiarism, but a different conception of the relationship between writer and written, one that is looser, one in which the written words do not stay firmly tied to one writer. For bloggers, the very medium in which we write encourages this perambulation and the technology that we use to shape our message builds into itself this commonplacing of ideas.

*I am quoting from the edition of Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor for the Arden Shakespeare (2006). There's much more to be said about this edition and about how editions matter when we're talking about Shakespeare, and especially about Hamlet.

**What's a tumblelog? Here's Wikipedia: "A tumblelog (also known as a tlog or tumblog) is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author's creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary." (You can tell I'm old-school because I give you the definition instead of just linking to it.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

waste tabs

My last post was about the use of printed or manuscript waste in making new books; earlier posts were about the finding tabs and other tools used to help users find their way through the 1527 Vulgate Bible. Here's a combination of those two interests: manuscript waste used to make a finding tab.

This is from a 1508 Missal for the Salisbury rites of Mass, printed in Paris by Thielmannus Keruer. Notice the tab carefully sewn on--you can see other tabs sticking out of the book's foreedge as well. And you'll see that the gothic lettering and abbreviations system look like those of the French 1527 Vulgate Bible. Unlike that book, however, this one is printed in both black and red ink--a process that would require two separate pulls of the lever to make two differently colored impressions. If you look closely, you can see that the red text isn't quite exactly aligned with the black, though it's impressively close to being lined up.

You can learn more about this particular volume by looking at its catalogue entry in Hamnet.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

cockroaches of the book

On today's Morning Edition was a great story about lawsuits and electronic information management: the essential point was that most companies do not have an electronic data management policy, and when they are sued, the cost of sorting through all those emails and instant messages can far far outweigh the cost of settling a lawsuit. The lesson a lay person should take from this is that emails can never be deleted. You think you've deleted what was sent to you, or what you sent, but it very well can already have been backed up on tape, or it could have been forwarded, or any other scenario that keeps it available to be retrieved in the future. My favorite quote from piece was this fabulous comment from Sharon Nelson, head of Sensei Enterprises: "Emails are the cockroaches of the electronic world." It's not the scurrying little feet that are the connection, or their rapid proliferation, but that they are both impossible to get rid of.

The quote made me wonder about what are the cockroaches of the early modern printed world. What proliferated and was discarded, only to turn up again? Binding waste.

Here is the definition of "waste" from John Carter's ABC for Book Collectors:
Spoiled or surplus printed sheets are called waste. Binders have often used these in the back of a volume, for making up boards, or in the earlier days for endpapers. Such waste might derive either from a printing house (proofs, trial sheets, overprintings) or from a bookseller (surplus quires or spoiled copies of recent books, discarded fragments of old ones).

(Wondering what some of those other terms mean? Look them up in this online edition of the ABC provided by the International Leage of Antiquarian Booksellers.)

Do you see the cockroach connection? There's some old stuff you don't need, so you use it to do some necessary material work, and then years later, it crops up again! It just won't go away! There are plenty of examples of waste in the Folger's collection. Here's one image (from Charles Fitz-Geffrey's 1636 The blessed birth-day) that makes the practice easily visible. On the right side of the book is a blank leaf, here with inscriptions; on the left is the pastedown, with the printed waste showing through under the edges of the glued-down binding leather:

Sometimes what is recovered from waste is not particularly of interest in and of itself. Other times, however, it can be quite valuable to us. The Folger has a fragment of John Skelton's poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng that appears to have survived because it was used as binding waste. It (along with the fragments at a couple of other libraries that were donated by the same patron who gave us our fragment) is the only surviving copy of that version of Skelton's poem.*

And who printed that poem, you ask? Wynken de Worde.

* (Want more information? Here's the book's listing in Hamnet, the Folger's catalogue, and there's an article about the fragments by Robert S Kinsman: “Eleanora Rediviva: Fragments of an Edition of Skelton’s Elynour Rummyng, ca. 1521” Huntington Library Quarterly 18 (1955): 315-27.)

Monday, June 16, 2008


In today's New York Times Opinion page is an elegy lamenting the decline of copy editors in the newspaper business and the lack of awareness about copy editors and the feats they make possible. What is it that copy editors do, you ask? Lawrence Downes sums it up:

As for what they do, here’s the short version: After news happens in the chaos and clutter of the real world, it travels through a reporter’s mind, a photographer’s eye, a notebook and camera lens, into computer files, then through multiple layers of editing. Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions.

But they also do a lot more. Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses.

Downes's editorial goes on to observe that presses are the key to this shift: in an age where newspapers are produced through computers and the actual presses have been retired, copy editing is no longer required in the way it used to be. That doesn't mean it isn't needed:
The copy editor’s job, to the extent possible under deadline, is to slow down, think things through, do the math and ask the irritating question. His or her main creative outlet, writing clever headlines, is problematic online, because allusive wordplay doesn’t necessarily generate Google hits. And Google makes everyone an expert, so the aging copy editor’s trivia-packed brain and synonym collection seem not to count for as much anymore.
Without a need to make copy perfect before it is fixed in print (or at least that morning's edition), there's no need for a copy editor to work it over. Not only does computing speed things up, it makes changing copy easy. Look it up on Google, run it through spell-check, publish it. And if it is outdated in an hour, update it and publish it again.

When the Eliot Spitzer story was breaking, I read a piece on the NYT website about the prostitute for whom he was Client 9. The first time I read it, it had a couple of surprisingly judgmental clauses about her MySpace page and the quality of her singing. An hour later, the online article was a bit longer, but it had clearly been through an editor, and those odd clauses had been removed. If I hadn't seen the earlier version, I would never have known it existed. Unlike print editions, which did vary in some cases between the first run and a later run, and between the national edition and the New York edition, the web stories have no easily discernible way of marking how a current "edition" varies from previous ones. I'm not sure how much that bothers most users of the site. It would drive a textual scholar nuts, though. So many variants, so little time!

And this is, again, where I come back to the printing of early modern books. We are used to thinking about books as varying between different editions--the Harry Potter books on different sides of the Atlantic, for instance. But we are also used to thinking about books as being stable within one edition. We expect all books printed in the same run to have the same text. But in the early modern period, stop-press corrections were frequent: if a mistake was noticed or a change made necessary after the printer had already started printing off sheets, the press was paused, the type re-set, and the printing continued. Depending on the number of changes made during the run, every single book could be different from every other book. And there was not even a date/time-stamp to mark the changes.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

the dense latin bible

In my earlier post about the glorious 1527 Latin Vulgate Bible, I commented on the density of the text block. My point then was that verses were not numbered, and that a reader needed to use the marginal alphabetical system to cross-reference different biblical moments.

Now I want to look again at that dense, dark, gothic lettering to notice something else: the handwritten annotations.

One effect of the dense text is that it doesn't have easily visible placemarkers. In addition to making it hard to cross-reference, it makes it hard to skim. Where's that reference to the Tygris river again? Look for it--not in the printed text, but in the handwritten notes in the margin. Just by the printed letter "C"--the word "Tygris."

Many of the notes in the margin act as placemarkers of that very simple sort. Here's where Phison is mentioned, here Gehan, here Tygris, here the Euphrates. I'm not sure why the writer wants to recall the names of the four rivers, but now he's got them easily visible in the margin, rather than picking them out of the text.

Other notes serve as placemarkers and as commentary. One example is the last annotation, in the bottom right corner, and shown enlarged below. “Institutio sancti matrimonij,” comments on the phrase it is connected to by a line, “hoc nunc os ex ossibus meis.” It thus calls attention to Adam’s quote about Eve, “This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” as evidence of the sanctity of marriage.

And if I'm going to mention dense text blocks, it is worth noting the abbreviations that are used throughout the printed text, a convention that began with manuscript scribes to conserve paper and labor, and to format the text into nicely justified margins. In our underlined phrase, the second "n" from "nunc" is omitted and indicated with the macron (a tilde-like line) over the "u". And "ossibus" is written with the terminal "us" omitted and signaled with superscript figure that looks like a small "9".

This elaborate system of abbreviation continued from the manuscript tradition through the early years of printing. It took time for printed books to develop their own look, particularly when it came to heavily conventionalized texts like bibles. It is not that printers were trying to make people think that these printed books were actually written by hand, but that for a very long time, the form of a manuscript book simply was the form of all books.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

moveable text

I logged onto blogger intending to write something about a particular oddity of this technology: templates. The one I am using is Minima--it's the first template in their list of templates, which makes it one reason to choose. But another is its relatively spare look--it's not cluttered, it has a neutral color scheme. And I really like the headline font and layout. I chose a pleasant rust orange for the frame, rather than the default grey, which feels satisfyingly like I've personalized the site to suit my tastes. (See Virginia Heffernan's recent piece in the New York Times Magazine on Google's new "artist themes" and the web's encouragement to personalize this.)

But it has problems, too. Unless you're more adept at html code than I am (I managed to write my own code back in the early days, but that was long ago), you cannot easily shape it to your own whims. I find frustrating the column width of the main text--I think it is too narrow. But the stretch, that's not so good either. Google--as with everything--makes it very easy to get online and express yourself. But your words are shaped by their decisions about how and what you will most want to express.

There is much to be said about the tension between using this format--the prestructured template--and talking about the way in which material aspects of books shape how we use them. The 1527 bible I posted about earlier structures its user's passage through it with the finding tabs and the cross-referencing system.

But when I logged on tonight, what I noticed immediately was that the blog looked different. For some time now I've been frustrated by the variable leading of my text. Sometimes the lines of my posts are pleasantly spaced out, separated by white space that makes the thoughts seem open and accessible. But other paragraphs appear all scrunched together, dark and impenetrable. And I have not been able to figure out the rhyme or reason for those differences. I don't think I'm doing anything differently.

But tonight, magically through the power of the internet tubes, all my paragraphs were perfectly leaded. It looked gorgeous. And it just goes to show: Google's templates shape my meaning through the technology of digital media, but they also make my meaning unstable. I can hardly think of anything more appropriate for discussing early modern books.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

cutting and pasting

This morning on the way to the metro, I was listening to NPR's Morning Edition and a story about the mayor of Karachi, who was asked whether or not Dubai and its spectacular growth was a model for the development and growth of Karachi. The mayor's response was that he preferred Karachi to be the model. But then he went on to say something that caught my attention: Karachi should be the model for such growth, but of course they were "cutting and pasting" ideas from many different places in figuring out their development.

I was struck by that metaphor of cutting and pasting and by how it has become much more prevalent in the last decade than it was when I was in school. When I was in high school--in the mid 1980s, not that long ago--I was on the school newspaper staff and we used to lay out our paper on bluelines by sticking and rearranging the various elements of the page: the story, the headlines, the bylines, the graphics. It was how we edited: we cut out paragraphs and moved them around. That was cutting and pasting, with razers and glue. But I don't remember the dominance of that language, of referring to not only laying out the page but to all sorts of editorial labor as cutting and pasting. I think we just called it putting the paper together.

My realization this morning was that to "cut and paste" has become the dominant way of describing the processes of editing and compiling, just as there is hardly any literal cutting and pasting going on. It was a brief moment of recalling how much our world is shaped by material processes, even by material processes that are no longer. And how much more is that true even as we communicate and live more and more through computers and digital media.