Friday, August 22, 2008

"Frances Wolfresston hor bouk"

My last post lamented pristine books that remained uncirculated and lonely on their shelves. This post is a teaser for future posts examining how very much we can learn about the ways that books circulate in readers' lives.

Above is a detail from a 1550 edition of Chaucer's collected works. On a leaf in the middle of the volume is carefully inscribed "Frances Wolfresston hor bouk geven her by her motherilaw Mary Wolfreston".

That in and of itself is a rich testament to the circulation of books. But there is more to be discovered. If you examine the Folger's catalogue entry for this volume, you will notice that one of the associated names is "Wolfreston, Frances, 1607-1677, inscriber". If you follow that link, you will discover that the Folger has an additional 10 books signed by Frances Wolfreston in its collections. Frances Wolfreston, you will soon realize, was an early modern book collector and her library of books, nearly all carefully inscribed with "Frances Wolfreston her bouk", can be found dispersed among some of the greatest library collections today. Another post will be devoted to exploring her and her collection.

One more tidbit teaser: you will also notice when looking at the catalogue entry that there are lots of other inscriptions recorded as being in this book. There are a number of other Wolfreston family members, suggesting that this volume was passed on down through the family; there are also a collection of other signatures from a different family suggesting that it was similarly passed down through their family. More about that, too, in the future.

In the meantime, two quick quirks that I like:

In her inscription, Frances spells her last name differently than how she spells her mother-in-law's. Her son Francis settled on yet a different spelling, choosing primarily to record his name as Wolferstan. We all know that early modern spelling was full of variants. But so, too, were early modern names. It seems very strange by our standards today: ask any other Sarah whether her name is spelled with an "h" or without the "h" and you'll discover that we are all very insistent on the importance of that difference.

Quirk two: when you follow the link for Frances Wolfreston to find other books that she owned in the Folger collection, what you actually find is that the Library appears to differentiate between those in which she is an "inscriber" and those in which she "signed". No difference in the books themselves. It's just a nice reminder of the many ways in which books are handled by many different people, and those human differences and foibles leave their traces everywhere.

Monday, August 18, 2008

do you write in books?

Some recent browsing on bibliophagia led me to (among many other things) a curious and disturbing discussion about writing in books. A sub-forum in a forum devoted to ChickLit, it consisted primarily of entries on how horrified posters were about people writing in books. I'm not talking about rare books, or library books, or even books borrowed from friends. I'm talking about people who won't write in their own books. Here's the words of one poster:
I am totally manic. I don't lend out my books. I don't write my name in books, nor do I write little comments in the margins. I don't break the spines. Ever. I won't even buy a book in a bookstore if the binding is the least bit damaged. I don't even highlight my college textbooks. The worst thing though: I refuse to buy "used" college textbooks that are highlighted/dogeared because it irks me so much. I will just pay full price. Sad, isn't it?
That's not so disturbing to me--I'm sympathetic with not wanting to buy a new book with a damaged binding, and I've never been convinced about highlighting as a useful reading strategy. Although how do you know you own a book if you don't write your name in it? And a number of posts confessed to being unable to lend their books out to friends because they were so bothered that they might be returned slightly dinged up. Isn't one of the great functions of books the way that they circulate socially? We bond over shared books, recommend them to each other, give them to one another. One of the great things about social network sites is that they allow you to share your bookshelves with your friends, and to discover new friends through their reading habits. The insistence on pristine books takes them out of our social networks, leaving them uncirculated and lonely on their shelves.

But here's the post that really got me going:
Last night, I looked over and my husband was writing in a library book. An [i]old[/] library book, circa 1880 or so. In pen. He tried to deny it but then sort of copped to it. I was so mad that I actually just left the room and went to sleep on the couch (and cold bitchy silence is not my usual MO with anger, honestly) until he came and apologized. I said that I know it's not actually my business, but that to me it seems like, I don't know, torturing a small animal or something just to see what happens. It's so completely arrogant and self-centered. Grrrr.
Writing in a book is akin to torturing a small animal? Put alongside the other posts in this thread, what comes across is a fetishization of the clean book, an idealization of books that seems to prioritize book form over book content. I of course think there is a great deal to be learned from the material form of a book. But don't the two work hand in hand? What's the value of a pristine book that has never been read? Especially in light of my last post about how readers make sense of their passages through books and about how necessary marking your book is, these posts to the ChickLit forum struck me as describing an impoverished relationship to books--for both their owners and for scholars of book history.

If those posts describe a near-exclusive focus on the form of the book, my husband tells a story that is the opposite. In grad school, one of his professors told a story about reading a Stanley Cavell book. As he was reading, he was finding Cavell more and more infuriating. And as he read further and further, the spine of the book began to crack and the pages began to fall out. Such was his fury that he took to literally discarding the pages as he read them--read a leaf, tear it out, throw it away.

It's a scenario that would probably kill those poor posters. And if those pristine books leave no traces of their readers in them for future scholars, the thrown-away text leaves neither readerly trace nor book. But there's a book that really mattered to its reader!

And in case you're wondering what those posts had to do with bibliophagia, here's the connection:
You're all going to hate me, but I promise, I don't do this any more (much). When I was younger, I used to eat books.

Really. Literally.

My copy of A Little Princess is more than well-loved, it's practically gone. I used to gnaw bits off the corners. It's incredibly annoying to me now. I haven't met anyone else who does that, probably for good reason. Still, as nervous habits go, I guess it's better than smoking. At least I always got my recommended daily allowance of fiber.
Here's to loving books.

(You can read these posts, and others, at the ChickLit Forums. There's much to be said about the term "chick lit" and what exactly it encompasses and what exactly it dismisses, but that's a topic for another blog.)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

information overload

This is the time of year when I often feel assaulted by information overload: there are new books and articles being published in both of my fields of research, I'm behind on my New Yorker, novels are piling up by my bedside, and then don't forget all those blogs and websites to check in with! Sitting down and constructing my syllabus exacerbates all this. There are too many new works to read that I might want to include, and even worse, I can't always remember where I read that fascinating study that absolutely needs to be included. Didn't I read something in that gigantic book that will help us understand the mise-en-page of printed Bibles? But where? And has it been eclipsed by something more recent that I haven't gotten to yet?

Information overload. It often comes up as the bane of the electronice age, something that the email cockroaches and the endless web sites have unleashed on us. But Ann Blair argues that it is characteristic of the early modern world too.* The printing press was worried to have unleashed an overabundance of books, so many that they threatened to bury any useful knowledge in the sea of text. In response, early modern readers developed a host of reading and note-taking strategies to manage their information overload.

I've mentioned before the period's prediliction for commonplacing. But how do you commonplace when there are too many books and too little time? Marginal annotation is one way: noting in the margin particular passages that you might want to return to later. But how to write in the margins quickly? Abbreviations are good: n.b. for nota bene, for instance. Developing a set of marks, each with a different meaning keyed to different categories of information or response is another. In the book pictured below, an early modern user has written a key to their marginal notations just below the printer's device on the last leaf:

This particular book is a copy of Cicero's De oratore printed by the Aldine Press in 1569. There are actually two keys on the last page (the picture at the top of the blog shows the one below the device; there is a second key above the device as well). The two keys differ slightly, and some of the symbols do not appear in the De oratore, which might suggest that the reader was developing a notation system during the course of reading the book. Bill Sherman notes that "a trident was used for passages of augmentation or reasoning and the symbol for Venus signalled an interest in love."** Other symbols denote particular rhetorical devices.

Do we have a handy strategy for managing the information overload of the digital age? Google has tried hard to provide them for us. They've developed an appliance for searching effectively through an entire company's files, and unveiled it in the appropriately titled blog, "Tackling information overload, 10 million documents at a time." On a personal level, and one that connects directly with Renaissance reading strategies, is their Google Notebook. From their faq:

With Google Notebook, you can browse, clip, and organize information from across the web in a single online location that's accessible from any computer. Planning a trip? Researching a product? Just add clippings to your notebook. You won't ever have to leave your browser window.
It's commonplacing! Although I have to point out that I find their last sentence a bit troubling: "you won't ever have to leave your browser window." Doesn't it seem to suggest that you don't even need to go on that trip that you've been research and clipping? Just more evidence that Google runs our lives.

*Ann Blair, "Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700," Journal of the History of Ideas 64 (2003): 11-28. Online via JSTOR for those of you with access.

**William H. Sherman, "'Rather soiled by use': Renaissance Readers and Modern Collectors" in The Reader Revealed, ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2001), pp 84-01. This essay was originally written for the catalog of a Folger exhibition; an expanded version of this piece is in his most recent book, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2008).

Saturday, August 9, 2008

owning your words

In a Chronicle of Higher Education column, Jennifer Sinor writes about having one of her course syllabi used by a colleague at a different institution, posing the question "Is it plagiarism when a colleague borrows your syllabus and then uses it in its entirety for his own course?" It's an interesting question. When do you own your words and when are they up for grabs by everyone else? Sinor's experience suggests to her that although she feels she owns her syllabus, and its appropriation by someone else was plagiarism, the others she talks to are less certain. Her department chair's response, interestingly, is that she doesn't own her syllabus: the university does.

As Sinor's column goes on to discuss, the question of what aspects of a professor's output are property of their employer and what are their own intellectual property are not entirely straightforward these days. But I'd like to focus not on the specifics of syllabi but on the recognition that we have different types of relationships to the words we use and the writings we create. I've commented before on the ways that blogs recycle other blogs as a type of commonplacing--in those cases, a particular writer's words (and ideas) become akin to common property. It's usually pretty easy to trace those words back to their source (one of the beautifully simple things about hyperlinks), so I wouldn't argue that such instances are plagiarism. But they do operate under a different type of ownership than the system by which scholars quote from each other in their articles and books. Are there other types of word ownership circulating today? One other system is that of technical manuals: who is the author of the guides that come with your new cell phone or laptop? It's certainly not an individual, but the corporation that produced the product. If writer A leaves company X to go work for company Z, A couldn't reproduce those manuals she wrote at X for Z. (Of course, she wouldn't want to do that anyway, since Z's product is certainly not the same as A's--the written word is so closely tied to the product that it serves more as an extension of that product than as a product in and of itself.)

Some of these other models of word ownership are helpful in thinking about the ways writers did and did not own their words in early modern England. Although there were recognizable writers who had audiences--John Skelton was a name that his audience would associate with a certain type of poetry, for instance--published books were owned by their publisher, not their author. (Even that sentence isn't quite right, since there were not "publishers" and "authors" in the same way that there are today. More on that in a future post.) When a publisher wanted to print and sell a book, he or she would go down to the Stationer's Hall and enter that book in the Stationer's Register. If the rights to print that book did not already belong to another stationer, and if the book wasn't similar enough to another book that it would impede the other book's potential to sell, then he could claim the right to print that book himself. The author didn't figure into the matter.

I haven't talked at all yet about early modern authors or early modern stationers in this blog. It's a big and fascinating subject, and one that will come up in future weeks. But for now, I'll leave you with a few more examples of the myriad questions about authorship and ownership that come up in today's world.

Sinor, in her column, links to a blog post by Chris Cagle in which he discussed the question of syllabi and plagiarism; he responds to her column by noting that he feels his views were misrepresented by Sinor. The comments to his response raise the issue of whether or not other writers and journalists are responsible for contacting a blog author before citing them: are the blog comments public record?

Sinor also references Malcolm Gladwell's piece for the New Yorker magazine about plagiarism, "Something Borrowed" in the November 25, 2004 issue. It's a great piece, taking as its starting point the controversy around Bryony Lavery's play "Frozen" and accusations that she had lifted the dialogue for its psychiatrist character from a real psychiatrist's writings. The piece raises another question that I haven't brought up here: in artistic creations, do the rules about plagiarism work in the same way? You can read Gladwell's piece through the New Yorker archive. You can also read the piece through Gladwell's own archive on his website. Does it make a difference where you read it? Is it a different experience reading it as part of a collection of work that is owned by the New Yorker or reading it as a collection of work owned by Gladwell? Does the manner of publication suggest something different about who owns it? Does it change how we read it?

Incidentally, if you are curious about syllabi, you can find the syllabus for my Fall 2007 Folger seminar on "Books and Early Modern Culture" through the navigation links on the Undergraduate Program's homepage. The Fall 2008 syllabus will soon be posted there as well. And in light of this discussion: the syllabus is something that I designed myself, although elements of its assignments and organization are drawn from the large collection of book history syllabi that circulate via SHARPweb and through friends. I do feel like I own this syllabus. But one of the Folger's hopes for this new program is that it can serve as a model for other collaborations between research libraries and undergraduate institutions and as a model for teaching book history and research skills to undergrads. It would be hard to be a model--for this program or for any teaching endeavor--if we didn't share our efforts with our colleagues. Should you use it, please credit my work and the Folger Shakespeare Library.