English Literature

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Dr Rebecca Bullard from the Department of English Literature asks whether the digital revolution means we no longer have a need for old books? 

Bringing old books to life

In an attack on the censorship of books, the poet John Milton declared that ‘Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’ Milton’s metaphor, taken from alchemy, claims that books store (like a vial, or ‘violl’) the distilled genius of their authors. These books, Milton claims, are kept alive by the elixir of their authors’ ideas. Other writers from the ‘early modern’ period (roughly, 1500-1750) were not so confident that an author’s spirit would be enough to keep a book alive. Jonathan Swift remarked, gloomily, that ‘Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming in to the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.’ Swift imagined books literally torn apart, their pages turned into firelighters, pie-tin liners, and toilet paper.

Research in early modern English literature has sought ways to preserve our printed heritage in ways that would have been beyond even Swift and Milton’s prodigious powers of imagination. A digital turn in humanities research has led to the creation of an array of resources designed to preserve early modern literary culture for current and future generations. Our University Library subscribes to several of these, including the extraordinary Early English Books Online (EEBO), which offers readers digital images of every page of almost every book published in the British Isles from the earliest days of printing in the late fifteenth century to the year 1700. Researchers at Reading are, themselves, responsible for such e-resources as Verse Miscellanies Online, an online edition of some of the most popular poetry anthologies of the English Renaissance, and a database of Italian Academy Libraries that allows users to enter the world of early humanist learning. Digitisation not only has the capacity to keep books alive and in the public domain but also, through functions such as word searchability and image recognition, to generate new avenues of research.

Does the digital revolution mean, then, that bytes store the ‘efficacie and extraction’ of living intellects better than books? Keeping special collections of rare books in libraries is a costly business – one that resources like EEBO might seem to make redundant. If we regard books simply as repositories of words or texts, the answer might be ‘yes’. But both Milton and Swift make it quite clear that books are more than just inert containers for the words that they contain. These authors draw attention to the life (and potential death) embodied, materially, in the physical document that is a book. Many of us in Reading’s English Department are carrying out research into early modern ‘material texts’ which demonstrates that books communicate with their readers in ways that cannot easily be captured in electronic form.

The codex – the folded series of pages that many of us think of, automatically, as the default form of the book – exists not just in two but in three dimensions. It has a depth and, therefore, a weight that eludes the virtual world of digital representation. Think about the last book that you read. You almost certainly made judgements about it based on its size and weight even before you opened the covers. And you were probably conscious of the peculiarly tangible form of narrative progress represented by turning pages. The knowledge that one is ‘104 of 286’ pages through a book – the kind of information imparted by a digital edition – cannot capture an aspect of reading material texts that is determined by the sense of touch more than abstract mental processing.

Perhaps even more significantly, digital texts give the misleading impression that the facsimile of a document that we see on our screens provides the definitive version of the text it contains. It conceals the fact that every early modern text is handmade and therefore unique. In this period, setting type, printing sheets, collation, and binding all took place in separate processes and separate places. No two texts produced in the pre-industrial era are exactly identical. Sometimes the differences can be quite radical. Authors were able to make alterations to the words of their texts (known as ‘stop-press corrections’) in the middle of the printing process. Paper and labour being expensive, no bookseller would withhold the uncorrected version from public view. Consequently, early modern texts often circulated in more than one version, even within ostensibly the same edition. When owners got their hands on books, the differences between texts could become even more striking. Early modern readers liked to scribble in books, adding notes and even blotting out words. An example of this practice can be found in images of the playwright Ben Jonson’s collected works, now held in Reading University Library’s Special Collections, which show the inky assault that one early reader made on Jonson’s plays.

Of course, the existence of digital editions does not in and of itself preclude researchers from consulting material editions of early modern texts. And digital resources like the one used to capture the images of Ben Jonson’s inked-out plays demonstrate that new technology can disseminate information about the unique characteristics of particular early modern documents. I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the digitisation of early modern texts – far from it. I do, however, want to draw attention to the limitations of electronic facsimiles, and to the advantages of carrying out the kind of archival research that leaves the smell of centuries-old paper, ink, leather (and concomitant dirt) on one’s fingertips. It is expensive to maintain archives of rare books, to conserve and catalogue early modern print. But old books bring to life the words of Swift, Milton and other early modern authors, as well as the cultures that fostered and first read them, in ways that cannot be matched by any digital ‘violl’.

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