Sunday, October 10, 2010

reading blanks



A while back, Whitney Trettien posted about a reference she'd come across to an intriguing book called "The First of April: a blank poem in commendation of the suppos'd author of a poem lately publish'd, call'd Ridotto, or, Downfal of masquerades." Whitney wasn't able to see the work itself--the ESTC record lists copies only at NYU and Penn--but when I was up in Philadelphia last month, I stopped in at the University of Pennsylvania's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library to take a look.

It is, as Whitney indicates, a curious thing. What makes it curious is that this is a "blank poem" that is not blank in the sense of "blank verse", which is the way in which Richard Steere's 1713 work uses the phrase:

Rather, "The First of April" (probably published around 1724) is blank in the sense that the pages are blank: as Foxon notes, "The poem is indeed blank; all that is printed is a dedication to 'No Body' on pp.iii-viii, and footnotes on pp.9-11."

Here are some shots of what the book looks like. At the top of my post is a shot of the title page; that is followed by six pages of a dedication "To No Body" and signed "The Free Agent." Facing the last page of the dedication is the first page of the Poem:


That's a bit blurry, but you can see the layout of the page: a woodcut and title, with footnotes indicated in the otherwise blank body, and provided at the bottom of the page. Here's a clearer picture of the footnotes to the first page of the blank poem:


The next page opening, with the second and third (and last) pages of the poem:


Again, an enlargement of the notes:



There are some funny jokes in here. "Finis" as "A learned Latin Amen to all Books whatever" isn't bad. I like the joke about Tetragrammaton, not so much the part about it being hard to pronounce, and that's why Jews don't say G-d's name, but the fact that this blank poem refers to the impossibility of writing and the gap between how something is written and how it is pronounced.

Blankness is clearly central to this poem, and Whitney pulls out some of the connotations of that blankness perfectly:

So what is this "queer little book" doing? Paper was still expensive around this time, we're told. It would have made up the bulk of any printer's expenses in producing a book. Studies in marginalia, like Will Sherman's Used Books, show how earlier Renaissance readers often exploited the blank paper in books as writing pads; and why paper-intensive projects, like John Foxe's commonplace book of 1,200 all-but-blank pages, were such a risk for printers. (Foxe's commonplace book failed, the unsold sheets recycled to print two later texts -- take a look at Sherman's discussion around page 138 of Used Books). Although produced over a century later, this blank poem still seems a "waste" economically, especially for an April Fool's joke.
And clearly "blankness" isn't being theorized the way it is in, say, Mallarm√©. Here, the "First of April" is the blank -- the Ridotto it "commends" is the blank -- in short, blankness is sarcasm; it signifies the nothingness and "No Body" of what it's supposed to celebrate. It's a conceptual poem that exploits its medium, but doesn't, it seem, rise to the level of a "poetics of blankness." Which is probably why I'm drawn to it. It's absence isn't theorized presence, but stands for simply absence itself. A No Thing ironically made known through the very "thingness" -- the necessary "thingness" -- of itself.

I think she's right in that there is something very material about the blankness of this poem. The footnotes highlight that in part, calling attention to the missing poem that is and is not at the center of "First of April." But there's another blank in this pamphlet that I find more compelling, one that Whitney didn't get to see because, as she concludes, for her the poem's blankness works in a literal way:
Of course, all this is written about a poem I've never seen firsthand -- whose existence to me is no more than a constellation of bibliographical citations. In other words, the blank poem is blank to me, blank to scholarship, blank to all but the very few who have left traces of its presence in their own work. Difficult to reproduce and impossible to anthologize, the very absence of text makes its material presence necessary, since its physical form bears the weight of signification.
But since I happened to be heading to Philadelphia and since I like to go to rare book libraries, this book is a little less, and a little more blank for me. Look at the final page:


It is blank. Not a blank with the rhetorical flourishes of notes and headlines and page numbers. It's just blank. It's the last page and there's nothing on it, except for the pencil traces left by a cataloger on the very bottom of the page and the bleed-through from the recto side. What should we do with this blank space? We don't read it the same way as the blanks talked about in the Dedication or printed as the text of the poem. I don't think it is being used as a form of sarcasm. If it is, what would it be making fun of? Or, to ask it another way, why is this page blank? I'm used to books that fill up their sheets of paper completely, laying out the text so it doesn't spill onto a new sheet, or filling out a gathering with advertisements. This book, however, seems to be made of one and a half sheets. Assuming it is a quarto, as the catalogue indicates (I didn't pull out the tools to double-check this), you'd expect to find it made of pages in multiples of 8 (4 leaves or 8 pages to a sheet). But this has 12 pages. That's 4 extra pages, which is, of course, half of a sheet; we can assume that the other half-sheet was printed with the same 4 pages, so that it would take 3 sheets to print 2 books. Still, why so many blank spaces? If I'm remembering correctly that the verso of the title page is blank (I don't know why I didn't take a photo of that), then 2 of the 12 pages are blank. That's 1/6th of the book that's empty.

That blank hasn't gone unrecorded--it's in the catalogue's description of the book, with the bracketed "[1]" in the ESTC and with the helpful explanation added in Penn's record, "(last page blank)". I haven't been across the street to the Library of Congress to look if "First of April" is in ECCO, but if it is, I wonder if the last page is reproduced as part of the facsimile? If it's hard to reproduce blanks, it's even harder to reproduce blanks that are outside of the text. And it can be even harder to know how to make sense of the blanks that aren't surrounded by text. Are they part of what we should be reading? Physical bibliographers would certainly "read" its presence, but what about others of us who study books? What levels of blankness do we read and what levels do we not see?

A final note: I'm grateful that Whitney stumbled on this poem and that she wrote about it so well that it sparked my interest. If you haven't read her post on it, go do that, and then check out the rest of her great blog, diapsalmata. And thanks, too, to John Pollack at Penn's Rare Books Library for making my quick trip there so easy and enjoyable!

Friday, October 8, 2010

more thoughts on reading e-books

As I've spent more time reading on my iPad, I've come to more realizations about how I read. The most surprising thing is how much I miss sharing books. This is more complicated than it sounds. I knew, of course, that you can't really share e-books, but I have never really been someone who likes to share books. I'm happy to borrow books, but I get nervous loaning mine out. They come back beat up, or they don't come back at all and then I resent the person who has my book, or I can't remember who I loaned it to and it's gone forever. So I'm not a big book sharer. And since my family shares a single Kindle account, my spouse and my son and I can all share books across our devices--even better, we can read that book simultaneously on our separate devices. But what I failed to account for is the fact that I do actually loan out my books. Not often, and not with very many people. But there are a couple of friends I would like to be able to loan a book to, and sharing books with my sister was one of the important ways that we stayed connected with each other. I hadn't even realized how much it mattered to me to be able to exchange books with her until my Kindle reading got in the way. We're currently exploring sharing an account, since she and I have more similar tastes in reading than my husband and I do. (The fact that the Alpha Gadgeteer and I rarely enjoy the same books took me a long time to adjust to--it can be hard, when reading is so important to you, to not be able to share it with someone you love.) So sharing books with my sister makes a lot of sense, especially as it's a way of sharing our bond with each other in a pleasurable way, when so many of our other points of connection require more difficult emotions.

So one of the thing that I've rediscovered through reading on my iPad is that reading can be strongly tied to social connections. We exchange books as a way of saying, "I love you" or "I'm thinking of you" or any of a host of other emotions that connect us to each other.

Another thing that I've rediscovered is that we each individually read different texts in different ways. I had some sense of this in my post about false endings, in which I commented that most of my e-book reading was of thrillers, stories that pull me forward into their plot. But as I've spent more time with this contraption, and as I've let my book-buying habits expand, I've come to realize that there are some books I really would prefer to read in paper codex form. Some of this has to do with how I navigate the text: some works ask me to read them slowly, to revisit earlier passages, to refer back to past points in the narrative. Some works deserve to have a graphic presentation that reflects their content, a font that was chosen deliberately for them, a paper stock that makes up their heft, or their lack of it.

The iPad has worked fabulously well for me when I was reading Stieg Larsson's trilogy or Justin Cronin's The Passage. In fact, it worked ideally. I didn't have to wait to make it to a bookstore to start reading the 2nd book after I finished the 1st (something, of course, that was true only because I didn't start reading them until the entire series was out). And I didn't have to awkwardly hold the 700-plus pages of The Passage as I sped through it. (And I was less likely to throw my iPad against the wall in my annoyance at the ending than I would have been with the book itself. I know it's the first part of a trilogy, but sheesh!) And given that I do a lot of my reading at night, in bed, with my glasses off and the font greatly enlarged, I do speed through these books--there's not room for lots of words on the screen when you're reading in a big font. You just read, click, read, click, read, click. Any sense of physical movement through the book is greatly diminished. And that's fine. It worked with how I was experiencing those books anyway. I was reading them to find out what happened next. I cared about the characters and the language just enough to make me care about the plot.

But now I'm reading Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, and though I'm not very far into it, I'm finding that I really wish I was reading it in book form. I haven't been able to quite put my finger on it (there's an apt metaphor for you), but I need to be able to sink further into it, to take my time with it, and reading it on my iPad is somehow getting in the way of that.

It's possible this is less about the iPad and more about The Finkler Question. After my father died, a few years ago, I lost the ability to read any serious fiction. I was in the middle of reading English, August and it was a great book, but I put it down and couldn't pick it back up. Instead I picked up Tony Hillerman. And then I devoured a lot of P. D. James, and I discovered Laura Lippman, and a whole lot of not very good chick lit that I mostly don't recall. This got better, slowly, and I discovered that I could read What is the What, even though Philip Roth was off limits. I loved The Imperfectionists. And I never lost the ability to read some of my old favorites, like Jane Eyre. But I still sometimes hit an unexpected wall when I'm reading. I know other people who have had similar experiences, and I know that some people get back to their old ways of reading, and I continue to hope that will be true for me too.

My point in sharing this is that we have different ways of reading different books. I was fine reading novels about death. But there was a category of books that felt like they asked too much of me: I needed to commit to them, to enter into their world, to let them take charge of me. And perhaps it was that I felt too unsettled in my own world to do that, but I simply couldn't read those books. I needed to be able to stay on the surface of what I was reading.

So perhaps that's what my problem is with The Finkler Question. It's asking too much of me, and I'm still not ready to read that way. But I think, too, that the iPad has something to do with this. It's very easy to race through reading on the iPad. All texts look the same in the Kindle app, and sometimes they start to blur together. Maybe I can retrain myself to read more slowly even on my iPad, to take my time with the feel of the language. I might still be able to rewire some of my perceptual habits.

But I don't know that I will. I had an exchange with one of my children that made me think that as much as I do love reading on my iPad, I don't love all types of reading on my iPad. I had bought Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass for my son, and have been really pleased that he's been enjoying it. (He and I often do share similar tastes in reading, and to be able to share favorite books with your child is even more lovely than to share them with your spouse.) But I inadvertently ordered the mass market paperback for him, and the font is fairly small, especially compared to the books normally printed for kids to read. So although he's enjoying the book, he was feeling a bit frustrated with the print, and it seemed to me it was making the book a bit harder than it needed to be. He's enjoyed reading books on our Kindle before, so I bought the Kindle edition of The Golden Compass--less than $8 and then I can read it on my iPad along with him! But he soon decided that he preferred reading it as a book. Yes, the type was bigger on the Kindle, and yes, he'd enjoyed reading some Rick Riordan books on it. But this time it wasn't working for him. It felt better as a book. I think he felt similar to how I feel about The Finkler Question. Some books you need to focus on, and you need to do that in book form.