Saturday, March 21, 2009

Carnivalesque 48

Welcome, one and all, to Carnivalesque 48, the early modern edition!

As should come as no surprise, some of the most interesting posts on early modern studies in the last few months have come from two sources. Both Mercurius Politicus (written by Nick Poyntz) and diapsalmata (Whitney Anne Trettien) routinely have fabulous posts; I'll single out a couple here, but really, their blogs are worth reading regularly. Mercurius's Killing Noe Murder discusses Edward Sexby's 1648 pamphlet justifying the murder of Cromwell; part of Nick's concern is the production and distribution of the pamphlet, a theme he takes up in a broader examination of the rise of newsbooks in The Great Game.

There is some more material book history over at diapsalmata, where Whitney has been looking at the practice of cut-ups in a series of posts. The first draws connections between early modern commonplacing, Dada cut-ups, and digital poetry--a great synthesis of material reading and writing practices across the centuries. There are also recent posts on the Little Gidding "harmonies" and the function of manicules in early printed books that are beautifully illustrated and elucidatory.

I'm not done with book history yet: bookn3rd looks at the history of anatomy illustrations and BibliOdyssey reproduces some illustrations of early machine technology from Heinrich Zeising's 1612 Theatri Machinarum--read through the post comments for further information on Zeising, and notice the illustration of the printing press.

The Scriblerus Memoirs writes about reading Paradise Lost while thinking about Google, and comes up with some observations about searching and knowledge, and angels and algorithms. At Early Modern Whale, Roy Booth has been thinking about murder and comes up with The awful plot again Curate Trat. Over at Parezco y digo, Chad Black's thoughts about etymology and sodomy lead to a thoughtful exploration of gender and sexuality and its linguistic markers in eighteenth-century Latin America.

A few libraries have started blogs to highlight their collections, and there's been some great stuff showing up. The Wellcome Library's post on "The Tribulations of Father Bernardo" is a great discussion of the seventeenth century Genoese painter Bernardo Strozzi. Yale's Beinecke Library has a blog devoted to our period; many times those posts simply feature images of works, but this one not only shows but discusses a mid-seventeenth century commonplace book including Donne poems. The Beinecke is also behind this word-a-day blog of Dr Johnson's Dictionary--not only will you expand your vocabulary, you'll see Johnson's annotations to the first edition as he prepared for the fourth edition. Never has encyclopedia seemed more fitting. Yale is also home to the Yale Law Library, which has its own blog that features, on occasion, early modern materials; here is a series of posts about their collection of early Italian statutes.

There's been some great blogging around book reviews in the last month or so, too. At In the Middle, a group blog for medieval studies, Karl Steel reviews James Simpson's early modern focused Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents, succeeding not only in a thoughtful response to Simpson's book but in starting a smart discussion in the post's comments.

Judith Bennett's History Matters: Feminism and the Challenge of the Patriarchy is the subject of a roundtable discussion by a series of feminist historians, with each post touching on some important questions about what it means to be a historian, what it means to be a feminist, and what it means for the two to intersect. The first discussion is hosted by Notorious PhD; the second by Historiann (don't miss her follow-up in which she expounds on why "Lawrence Stone is a tool"); and the third discussion is hosted by Tenured Radical. Part 4 will appear at Another Damned Medievalist on March 23, and the final part will feature Bennett herself at Notorious PhD.

I realize, by the way, that this is a medieval-heavy cast of characters, but the discussion is certainly relevant for our period, too. If you're aching for some meta-discussion about the implications of history and labels by someone based in the early modern period, check out the thoughts of Chronologi Cogitationes on what it means to do "maritime history."

But let's leave things on a lighter, more popular note. Some of you might have noticed some talk about a discovery of a painting of someone. But who? Shakespeare? Overbury? Stanley Wells says it's Shakespeare, but he's almost the only one. Mr Shakespeare's blog gives an overview (and lots of links, including the huge discussion at the New York Times blog, The Lede) but withholds judgment; Adam Gopnik, blogging for the New Yorker, is thoroughly unconvinced.

Many thanks to all of you who submitted nominations, and particular thanks to these great bloggers who made doing this so much fun. Happy reading!

Update: Mr Shakespeare's blog posted this latest yesterday, with greater skepticism about the portrait, summarizing and linking to articles recounting the doubts of National Portrait Gallery curator Tarnya Cooper about the portrait as being of Shakespeare and providing some insight into why we should be happy to have a newly discovered portrait of Thomas Overbury.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Carnivalesque nominations: time's a tickin'!

If you haven't already done so, get your blog post nominations in for Carnivalesque 48, the early modern edition! If you've come across--or if you've written--a great blog post that concerns the period 1500 to 1800, please let me know about it by emailing me or by using the nomination form. I'll be posting my edition this weekend, so get your suggestions in now!

I assume most of you recognize the image I've used to illustrate my theme of time's a tickin'--it's Abraham Lincoln's watch, recently opened up by the Smithsonian to reveal messages inscribed on the underside of the watch movement. It seemed appropriate for this post not simpy because it demonstrates the passage of time, nor because it lets me demonstrate my fondness for things pertaining to Lincoln, although it does do both of those things wonderfully. But it also gestures toward something that I am not usually concerned with, given my focus on things bookish: writing happens not only on paper and on parchment, not only in the context of books and blogs, but in a wider range of contexts and on a wider range of materials than we sometimes remember to consider. I don't know when I'll be returning to this theme, but the place to go for learning more about this sort of writing practice in our period is Juliet Fleming's Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (U Pennsylvania P, 2001).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

pointing to Carnivalesque submissions

A quick but important announcement first: I am hosting the next early modern edition of Carnivalesque. Please nominate your favorite early modern blog posts by using the Carnivalesque nomination form, commenting here, or by emailing me directly (you can find my email address through my profile). The no-holds-barred Carnival fun and wisdom is scheduled for publication on March 21st, so get me pointed in the right direction now!

And that last bit is my not very subtle transition to the lovely pictures below. I promised my last commenter that I would follow up that great pointing forefinger (or Fonz's thumb, depending on your tastes) with some more examples. So here's another great set of pointing fingers, this time complete with fancy ruffles. This is from a 1475 commentary on Aristotle--again, more commentary on commentary, as we saw with the Boethius. Some genres of writing would seem to invite more pointing notes than others. Here we've got not only the fists, but annotations and brackets. In fact, nearly the entire text on this page is marked off with brackets. (Zoomable image; catalogue entry)

Can I just say again how much I love these elaborate drawings? The best place to learn more about what these pictures are doing is William H. Sherman's Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (U Pennsylvania P, 2008). He's got a whole chapter on the subject, "Toward a History of the Manicule," that is fascinating reading and very fun to look at. (I've mentioned before that my source for all my blog images is the Folger's Digital Image Collection, a collection that is assembled in part deliberately and in part piecemeal through staff and reader requests. The pictures of fists that I've pulled out of the collection are there thanks to Bill Sherman, who requested them for his book. So we should all pause for a shout-out to him for that, even before we get to reading his book.)

I've been calling these images fists, which is how they tend to be identified in the Folger's catalogue. But as Sherman discusses, there is no standardized language for this image, even as we tend to instinctively understand what it is that the pointing finger is doing:
I have now found no fewer than fifteen English names for what I prefer to follow the manuscript specialists in calling the manicule: hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop's fist, index, indicator, indicule, maniple, and pilcrow.
I can't do justice to his insights here, but it's worth reading Sherman's piece to think about the ways in which the very word that we use to describe this mark makes distinctions between origins in manuscript and print and suggests the various ways in which the mark is used to organize the text, the hierarchy of authorities governing it, and readers' responses to it. Go forth and read!

In the meantime, I leave you with a less fanciful manicule, one that doesn't provide a commentary on commentary, but that marks out a somber and beautiful passage from Spenser's Faerie Queene (image; catalogue):

I look forward to seeing your blog post nominations, fanciful, somber, or otherwise.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

looking at Boethius

I failed to include any pretty pictures in my last post, so now I give you this:

It's a page opening from Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, printed in 1498 in Venice. Actually, that's a completely inadequate description of what we're looking at. And that's one of the reasons I like this image--there is a lot to see when you look at this book. For starters, there is the text in the large font, printed in several blocks over the two pages. That text is Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, written around AD 524 while Boethius is imprisoned and awaiting trial for treason, for which he was to be executed. It was a highly influential piece in the medieval and early modern worlds, one that was studied and passed on in manuscripts and, eventually, printed texts. (You can find an online edition and an English translation at the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center.)

Evidence of the traditions of commentary on Boethius's text can be seen in how it is presented on the page. Surrounding the blocks of text from De consolatione philosophiae is commentary by an early fourteenth-century Welsh priest, Thomas Wallensis. The commentary is in the same style of type, but a smaller size, and not laid out with as much open space. To my eye, when I look at the page, the commentary is clearly commentary, a subsidiary text to the primary Boethius. You don't even need to know what you're looking at to get that dynamic.

Surrounding and interlined with the printed text is an extensive manuscript commentary by an early user of the book. There are notes written in the leading between the lines of Boethius's text, as well as in the inner, outer, top, and bottom margins of the pages. It's evidence of someone who not only looked at this book, but who read it closely and really used it. There's commentary on commentary here. Describing this as Boethius's Consolation does not do justice to what is happening on these pages, even if that is how it is catalogued.

Finally, one last great image. The same reader who provided the manuscript commentary above has left annotations throughout the book, including this wonderful picture of a hand pointing to exactly where we should be looking.

For your further looking pleasure, you can find zoomable images of both Boethius pages here (don't forget to set your browser to allow pop-ups), and the catalogue entry in Hamnet for the book here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

accessing and looking at books

My last couple of posts on "navigating the information landscape" and "democratizing early english books" have gotten a number of links and comments--it's great to have such thoughtful feedback, and I wanted to use this post to clarify some of my thoughts.

This series of posts has been prompted by Robert Darnton's latest essay in the New York Review of Books on "Google and the Future of Books." Darnton's call for the need to create a Digital Republic of Learning led me to wonder what it would mean to democratize access to early modern books. Does access to those books equal understanding those books? Perhaps. But not necessarily. As I argue in my last post, early modern books look different from modern books in ways that alienate us from the books and from their texts.

There is a lot going on in Darnton's piece that I don't address in my posts, or only mention glancingly. The financial implications of access came up briefly in "navigating" with my frustrated aside about what it was like to be a independent scholar who didn't have access to those fabulous resources like EEBO, a frustration that is echoed and expanded over at PhiloBiblos:
Reading and learning (and teaching) must be valued, there can be no dispute about that. And I don't expect expensive databases like EEBO, ECCO, Digital Evans, &c. to suddenly be free and available. But I certainly wish they could be. Sure, there might be people who don't get every nuance of what they see (opening up a great opportunity for those of us who can help in that regard to provide contextual details). But not having access to them severely limits scholarship, especially for those of us who are no longer students and don't happen to work at places that can afford access to all of them). Leadership from Harvard and other major research libraries on that front could help too; a clamor for open access to such resources would go a long way toward making it happen.
And one of the commentators on my last post, Vaguery, feels similarly about the desire for people outside the walls of academia for access to those resources:
I can attest---having just paid my $380 annual fee for the privilege of dragging my butt downtown and sitting at a low-grade computer in a campus library so I can swear at the stupid EEBO scans or read JSTOR's precious license-protected 19th century public domain journals (without being permitted to save or print them)---I can attest there are still real people out here that folks inside the monstery walls who find utility in these scans. :)
I hadn't dwelt on that digital divide because I was on a different trajectory in that post. But that gate around those resources is key to Darnton and to many of my readers and it is to me, too. I'm at the Folger now, and my faculty affiliation at GWU and Georgetown gives me access to amazing riches, but when I was conducting research without those resources, it was deeply frustrating. (And I want to point out, too, contrary to some assumptions, not all scholars are at institutions that provide access to such things: they are expensive resources and even before this age of declining revenue, not all schools or universities were able to or could see the value in paying for them.)

The possible divide between credentialed scholars and amateur scholars is another topic that I did not address. It's at the heart of Darnton's examination of what we might be able to learn from the Enlightenment: what began as the opening of access to learning did not open up beyond a small, elite class of readers, and that elite class of readers contracted even further once learning was professionalized and hardened into academic disciplines and profit-driven publishing companies. My suggestion that early modern books were so estranged from our habits of reading that they were not going to be easily made accessible simply by providing free digital images was not intended to coincide with that division between "professional" and "amateur" readers. Vaguery makes the useful observation that there are lots of folks out there today who are not professional scholars but who are able to read these early books:
But the texts you've tapped as "challenging" wouldn't faze the hundred blackletter specialists at Distributed Proofreaders; the marginalia would be sought out as a challenge by a dozen fans---for fun. While they might not talk about it aloud or explicitly, amateur volunteers are doing the required modeling of the document when they're planning and creating an authoritative transcribed electronic version. It happens as a matter of course.
And he reminds me as well that the very fact that we have so many books available to be transcribed is due to the knowledge and skills of the amateurs of times gone by:
It's as if the Academy has forgotten all about the antiquaries---the men who actually collected and saved these physical documents in the first place. The ones who published the 18th and 19th century magazines that fill my shelves with interminable discussions of inscriptions and editions and mysteries and local knowledge, and spent their middle-class disposable income having wood engraved reproductions made of their collections, and wrote these pedantic letters on local names, and filled innumerable miscellanies and folklores.
Vaguery is right: the books I have highlighted are by no means illegible. Nor are they legible only by folks with PhDs. But these examples illustrate all the more what I've been arguing--it takes skill and practice and love to read these books. We teach ourselves to read them by reading them over and over. It's still learning to read, whether we teach ourselves or are taught by professors or encounter them through blogs.

It also makes me wonder, where are the antiquaries of yesteryear? Do they now collect twentieth century pulp fiction? Classic sci-fi? Modernist design magazines? Is it too expensive to collect earlier works? Are collectors and antiquaries the same thing, anyway?

More to the point, though, I want to close with an observation that what I have been interested in when thinking about what it means to digitize early books is what habits and cultures of reading affect our interaction with those books. Jonathan Hsy comments that digital images, like the one of the Nun's Priest's Tale in my last post, encourage us to approach texts differently:
What I appreciate about digitalization projects like those at the Folger is precisely the wider access they provide - a digital image allows you not only to read a text but to *look at it* as well, picking up on what it transmits in addition to its "content."
The difference between looking at and reading is a valuable one for those of us interested in how books work and what we can do with them. It also opens up questions about how different codes of looking at encourage us to read or not read in different ways. DrRoy (who writes the great blog Early Modern Whale) asks in response to my last post and to Vaguery,
Tell me, which is easier to read, page images off EEBO, or the transcribed texts created by the text creation partnership? My answer would tend to be the page images: the eye copes with a line of maybe 12 words: the text creation partnership transcripts run maybe 20 words or more across your browser. I get eye-slip all the time. Of course, for the sheer ease of getting a quotation into a document, I tend to read the transcription. But I often think I should revert to the page images.
I'm exactly the same--I find it much easier to read the image than the transcription. I can read transcriptions, of course, and they are very handy for all sorts of reasons, including making it possible to search texts. But they slow me down in a way that the image does not.

My problem, though, has less to do with line length and eye slip and more to do with the mixed signals I get when I look at the text. I was just telling my students, most of whom are new to reading unedited early modern texts, that when they quote from them they should not modernize the spelling, nor should they regularize i/j or u/v, but they should absolutely use the modern short "s" rather than the long "s" form. It's standard transcription practice. But why is that? I always have at least one student who finds a font on her computer that has a character to reproduce the long "s" and who wants to use that in her transcriptions. But I find it impossible to read. The long "s" I have no problem with in an early modern font. But put it in a modern font and I cannot process it--the signals are just all wrong, with one set of signals telling me to read one way, but with the "s" form belonging to a different set of signals that aren't otherwise there.

And that's my point. It's not that any of us are incapable of reading. But we all have habits of reading, habits that are activated by the presence or absence of signals of which we are not necessarily aware. Without being aware of those habits, we cannot assume that access equals understanding or that reading equals looking at. One of the great possibilities of digitizing early books is that it can open our eyes to those ingrained habits so that we can see anew what it means to look at and to read books.