UPDATE: commenting problems FIXED!

UPDATE: w00t! I think I’ve now solved the commenting glitch by returning to the hideous pop-out comments as opposed to embedded comments. The important thing is not the beauty of the design but that you can share your wisdom with me! So please do!

You can ignore what follows, except that if you find you are having problems, please email me at the address given below so that I can try to fix it!

I think the blogging powers that be are angry with me for being a once-a-month poster! But whatever the reason, there’s some sort of bug affecting the ability for some of you to sign in and leave comments. Of course this happens when I’ve specifically asked for your feedback! I’m working on solving the problem–if any of you bloggers have had this happen to you, I’d be happen to hear your thoughts on how to fix it.

I’m reluctant to open up comments to all and sundry anonymous folks, but I do want to know what you want to add to the top ten list. So, please feel free to email me at wynken DOT blog AT gmail DOT com with your suggestions or tweet them to @wynkenhimself.

In the meantime, I’ll make some sacrifices to the blogging powers (old mice? flash drives? the aroma of freshly minted e-books?) and will let you know when everything is up and running again!

the most influential book history tools of the decade

It’s that time of year again. Indeed, it’s that time of decade. That’s right, everywhere you look, top ten lists abound. I’m not sure why we need to list ten of things we find remarkable. But it’s made me start thinking: what would be on my top ten list of notable early modern book history events or tools of the decade?

Right up there at the top would have to be digitization, from EEBO to Google Books to The Shakespeare Quartos Archive. The ability to access facsimiles of works without having to travel thousands of miles, potentially saving time and money and carbon emissions and wear and tear on the books, has fundamentally changed how we conduct and teach early modern books and book history. EEBO and Google Books have been mostly about access, but Shakespeare Quarto Archive is not only about access but about developing digital tools for studying texts. (Read my posts on digitization to see some of the pros and cons I see with this development, since it’s too complicated of a subject to rehearse here. Again.)

I’d say, too, that book history and early modern blogs have seen remarkable growth over the past ten years. Blogs have enabled a conversation between far-flung scholars and devotees of early books that wouldn’t be otherwise possible. I’ve learned a lot from Mercurius Politicus and diapsalmata, as well as Early Modern Online Bibliography and Bavardess (I’ve learned from many others, too, and have links to them on my blog–this is just a ruthless short list of a handful that I go to the most often). They’ve done good things for libraries, too, opening up interest in collections and, I like to imagine, the use of our materials, across levels of scale and resources. The Beinecke has a great bunch of blogs (early modern, paleography), and I enjoy reading “Notes for Bibliophiles” from the Special Collections at the Providence Public Library. I’ve pleaded before for more early modern literature blogs, but I’ve really enjoyed what is out there, literature or not, early modern or post modern. Especially as someone who only came to this field a few years ago, I’ve learned a lot from reading your blogs and have been grateful for being part of this community.

This one is a bit more idiosyncratic, but watching my kids learning to read has given me a new appreciation for reading in general and for the emotional ties we have to books. Over the past ten years I’ve seen both my kids start reading and start loving books; I’ve actually also gotten to see both of them start learning Hebrew as well, which brings home the whole weirdness of written languages and learning to recognize letters as making up words and those words as having recognizable (and deployable) meanings. I continue to find the transition from gobbledygook to spoken language amazing, and the movement from spoken to written language is equally fascinating. I have one child who refused to read on his own until he had it mastered; the first book he read was The Borrowers, which is crazy ridiculous for a first-time book. My other child insisted on figuring out the reading thing before he’d even started school and made tons of mistakes along the way; those rhyming books like “Pat sat on the cat” were a key exercise for him, if a bit tedious for me. Watching them learning to read in their own ways provided insight into literacy in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have appreciated. What does it mean to be literate? Does it mean to haltingly read rhyming books? To understand the metaphorical implications of Bilbo’s fight against Smaug? To pronounce written characters in words whose meaning you cannot understand? (For something of the emotional resonance of reading with children, see this post.)

This might also be myopic, but I think a growing interest in the pedagogy of book history and bibliography has been another development. In my discipline of English literature, at least, bibliography and textual studies had a marked decline in graduate programs–when I was in grad school in the early 1990s, in a program that is now characterized by a strong interest in the history of the book, there were not only no requirements for mastering descriptive bibliography or editing, there were few opportunities to learn those subjects. My sense, without having conducted formal studies of the subject, is that this was characteristic of the field in those years. Once upon a time, PhD students were required to have a knowledge of bibliography and editing; those requirements fell by the wayside, and an interest in those subjects has only recently reemerged and trickled down into graduate and undergraduate programs. As someone who runs a program teaching these subjects to undergraduates, I might easily be accused of myopia here, but I do think that an increased interest in teaching these subjects is not characteristic only of the Folger but of many programs. (I’ve blogged some examples of the work my students have done in my courses.)

Back to technology, here’s another one that people didn’t necessarily see coming: audiobooks. That’s right, the rise of the iPod has led not only to the rise of iExcess, but to an increase in audiobooks. Remember when we used to listen to books on tape? Remember how awkward they were, how limited the selection was? I used to go to my public library (the fab Philadelphia Free Library) to try to find books on tape to get me through the ten-hour drive home to Michigan. It wasn’t so easy to do. But now, thanks in part to Audible’s large library, there are a slew of options out there. And listening on your iPod is so much easier than flipping tapes over. Neil Gaiman had a nice piece on NPR last month pointing out the unexpected rise in audiobooks. I love me a good audiobook. But I love, too, the way this reminds us that technology doesn’t always have the effect we expect it to. Audiobooks were on their way out, and the decline of the cassette tape seemed only to confirm that fade. But then came along MP3s, and the rebirth of audiobooks.

I am, alas, only up to five, which is well short of the ten that make up most lists. So I turn to you, dear readers, to help flesh this out. What would you point to as developments over the past decade that have shaped our understanding of early modern books and book history? Twitter? Amazon? The recovery of Durham’s stolen First Folio? Kindle? The pdf of the Stationers’ Register? Don’t let my perspective dictate yours–I’d be thrilled to expand my horizons with your help!

And with my advance thanks for your thoughts on this subject, please add my best wishes for a happy new year!


I don’t know where all the time has gone! One minute it was the start of the semester, and now it’s Thanksgiving. I’m particularly sad that I dropped the ball after my last post on e-books. I’d really meant to pick up the conversation but, unsurprisingly now that I look back at it, it was hard to pull my thoughts together.

One of the things that has struck me the most is the weird way in which conversations about e-books tend to rocket between two polar positions: “I love books and e-books are an abomination!” and “I love my e-book and print is dead!” Both seem ridiculous to me in their totalizing insistence–surely the rise of electronic books aren’t going to fully eclipse books. Did radio wipe out television? Did cinema destroy theater? I don’t even think that the codex eliminated the value of tablets and scrolls. So to imagine that the future is bookless seems silly.

Robert Darnton’s recent conversation with Diane Rehm on her radio show exemplified this push-pull polarization. Despite his best efforts to make subtle these distinctions and to work with the sort of nuance that makes his scholarship so interesting, many of the host and caller comments kept coming back to this fear of the death of the book, as if it is impossible to love reading and to love books and to also embrace the possibilities of digitization. (If you haven’t yet read Darnton’s new book, you can access many of its constituent parts in their earlier versions via the handy list at Early Modern Online Bibliography. I should pause, too, to say that there are lost of good conversations happening at that blog about these concerns.)

For some other subtle thoughts about how book historians might respond to e-books and digitization, I highly recommend a bunch of Whitney’s posts at diapsalmata: the first builds on my last post and encourages a material approach to the work of digitizing, subsequent posts think about why the future isn’t here yet and the relationship between the digital and the archive.

Whitney’s most recent post raises these questions again in light of the new Shakespeare Quartos Archive, something that I’ll be looking at and blogging on soon. In the meantime, though, you might be wondering what a photograph of Pollard and Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue is doing illustrating this post. Here’s the answer: I am the proud new owner of all three volumes. Why would I shell out the big bucks for something that is now freely available online? Because even though it has been turned into an electronic database, the printed catalogue provides information that isn’t carried over to the online one, and it can be used in ways that I sometimes find harder to navigate online. I wouldn’t want to get rid of the ESTC by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a great thing that it is now available to all and sundry. But it doesn’t mean that we’re throwing away our printed ones, either.

On that note, happy Thanksgiving to my American readers and happy reading to you all!

to e-book or not to e-book

There’s been a slew of stories over the last few months about electronic books, primarily of the Kindle variety, but some of them touch on general issues pertaining to the availability, use, and desirability of e-books. I’ve been trying to compose a post in response to them, but I keep getting overwhelmed. What to say in response toa prep school that replaces its library with a cappuccino machine and 18 e-readers? *head-desk* (The School Library Journal has a more articulate response.) What about the summer’s too-perfect-to-be-true news that Amazon deleted copies of Orwell’s works from the Kindles without informing owners? Make that another big #amazonfail moment after their first, horrendous mistake last spring when changes in their ranking system made thousands of gay and lesbian titles disappear from searches. Ooops. In further e-stories, there’s the non-release as e-books of two of the Fall’s big titles: Teddy Kennedy’s posthumous True Compass and Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue. What will those Cushing Academy students do when researching papers about the Obama election? I guess rely on Wikipedia. (For insight into why the memoirs aren’t Kindled, see Daniel Gross’s Moneybox column for Slate, in which he explains why the economics of publishing doesn’t make sense for them as e-reads.) Oh, and speaking of students and e-readers, what do Princeton students have to say about using Kindles as part of a pilot program to replace textbooks with Kindles? According to one student quoted in the Daily Princetonian, “this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool.” Finally, last week there was the New York Times piece worrying that books might be the next to be “Napsterized.” (Remember Napster? Some of you young ‘uns might not recall the world before digital music files, but let me tell you, it put the fear of Someone into the music industry when people started sharing their music online.) Joshua Kim’s response on Inside Higher Ed brings those Napster concerns into a conversation with universities and libraries.

About a year ago, I posted about my perplexed response to a newspaper column that touted the joy of Kindle as being “almost like a book”–why read something that’s almost as good as a book when you could read a book? I still stand by that point, but not because I’m a luddite. In that particular piece, I was reacting against a perception that e-reading had to be good because it was new. But I also don’t think it has to be bad because it’s new. My husband got a Kindle last spring and it’s been great. For him, the joy of the machine is that it holds so much. Given his preference for texts that come in big, heavy books–military history, science fiction, jurisprudence–the fact that he can take his Kindle on trips means that he needn’t break his back or run out of reading material. I still don’t use it, and not only because he’s the alpha gadgeteer in our household. My way of reading for work and research is to cover the page in notes, so paper copies work best for me. And most of my pleasure reading I do in a way that isolates me as much as possible from the world: glasses off, dark room, book light. We all have our own ways of reading and different technologies that meet those needs.

But much of what I’m seeing written in the popular press about e-book readers isn’t, I don’t think, taking into account the full picture. Some of the stories I mentioned above hint at the problem of Amazon’s essential monopoly over the current e-field. I know Sony has an e-reader, but given Amazon’s vertical integration, they hold an incredible portion of the e-market in their tight e-fist. (E-sorry. It’s hard to stop the e-jokes.) If there was some competition in that market, the problems of pricing and availability and Big Brother would be different.

More to this blog’s point, what does the current state of e-readers and discussion have to do with book history and book historians? So much of what we’re considering today with Kindles focuses on books that were written to be distributed in print and then are transferred into an e-format. (Daniel Gross’s book Dumb Money actually did this transference the other direction: he wrote it as an e-book for Free Press and it sold well enough that it’s now available in print–see the Washington Post profile of him for more on that.) But what happens when we get to the day that works are created for and intended to be experienced as e-books? How will that change the experience of using books? And how will we ensure the survival of those books? As anyone who has been working with computers over the last few decades knows, technology becomes obsolete and earlier formats don’t always carry over into new ones.

Similarly, how might the availability of new digital formats affect the process of creating works? According to Scott Karambis, for some creative artists, the availability of the digital world has changed how and what they write: author Justin Cronin relied on the ease of researching online to push his knowledge into new arenas when composing his newest novel, insisting that it made him become a different sort of writer. Karambis’s blog post focuses more on the effect of technology on the process of creation and less on the impact of digital creations themselves (the blog is geared towards other folks in marketing, rather than, say, writers or book historians). Rachel Toor, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is more focused on the economic impact of e-books. Even though she loves reading e-books on her Kindle, she has decidedly more mixed feelings about being an e-writer. Might e-publishing save university publishers by bringing down costs and therefore recovering the economic viability of those scholarly monographs with small audiences? And the speed of electronic publishing is wonderful for timely subjects and for the responsiveness it generates for readers. But will people stumble across e-books the way they do physical books on bookshelves? Will writers be able to live off the advances from their e-books the way that some are able to today?

Toor and Cronin don’t ask this in their reflections on writing and new technology, but I will: will we still have e-books to read if they aren’t backed up on paper? Will we still be able to lend books to each other if they’re tied to our e-readers? Will we still be able to talk back to our books, modify them, resist them?

I often, when teaching early modern book history, say to my students, “It’s all about money!” And it often is. But it’s also about creativity and interactivity and longevity. And we’re still taking baby steps towards what it all might mean.

updates and welcomes

I’ve been swamped recently, so just a quick post with some updates and links:

First, thanks to Lorem Ipsum’s suggestion on my last post about the catalogue entry for James’s Essayes of a prentise, the Folger’s record has now been updated! The author is, of course, James I, as that is the standard form of his name, but the note has been clarified to read “By James VI of Scotland and (later) James I of England, whose name (Jacobus Sextus) is given in an acrostic on A1r.” So thanks to Lorem Ipsum and to Deborah Leslie!

As for the binding, which I suggested might be a presentation copy from James to Burghley, my friend Adam points out that Burghley’s library was rebound in the early 18th century, so surviving presentation copies to either Burghley or his son Robert Cecil, are quite rare. My student had conjectured that this book was not part of Burghley’s library past the mid 1600s since it doesn’t appear in the 1687 Bibliotheca Illustris, which record the contents of the Burghley library put up for sale. (I have to say that I haven’t actually looked myself to verify whether this book is included or not, so if this is a mistake, feel free to let me know!)

That’s it for the updates. The image accompanying this post is a timely one: it’s a 1331 mahzor, or High Holiday prayer book, that has just been placed on exhibit at the Israel Museum. It’s from the Jewish community in Nuremberg, and amazingly survived not only the 1499 expulsion of Jews from Nuremberg, but the Holocaust and the ravages of the twentieth century. You can read more about it at Tablet magazine. Shanah tovah to those of you celebrating the new year!

And a special shout-out to my fellow blogger, Mercurius Politicus, who has finished his dissertation and welcomed his new son!

Here’s to new starts of all sorts–and to–maybe!–more timely blogging in the future.

UPDATE: Ooops! I forgot to issue congrats to bookn3rd, who has also finished dissertating and has joined the ranks of working stiffs. Welcome!

essayes of a prentise

Another example of a student project today, this time at the intersection of politics and poetry as well as of England and Scotland: King James’s The Essayes of a prentise, in the divine art of poesie. This book is a collection of poems and translations by James, as well as “A treatise on the airt of Scottis Poesie.” Published in 1584 in Edinburgh, James was then King James VI of Scotland, and net yet King James I of England, a title he didn’t take until 1603, although the book is cataloged by the STC as authored by James I. (The STC record is the source of the Folger’s catalogue entry for the book; there are standardized rules for all cataloging, of course, but it seems to me misleading to think of this work as being by the King of England, rather than an aspirant to that title.)

There are some great things about this book, including the fact that it’s written in a Scots dialect. Are you surprised that James would write a treatise on poetry? He addresses that very surprise in his preface:

“ze may marvell paraventure, quhairfore I sould have writtin in that mater, sen sa mony learnit men, baith of auld and of late hes already written thairof in dyvers and sindry languages: I answer, That nochtwithstanding, I have lykewayis writtin of it, for twa caussis.”

If you want to know the two causes, you’ll have to read the essay yourself. (By the way, I’ve regularized the u/v usage, as I typically do in transcriptions for this blog, and I’ve reproduced the long “s” form as our modern “s”, but you’ll have to provide your own accent to make sense of the rest of it.)

As you might imagine, part of James’s aim is to argue for the particularity of Scottish learning: the rules for English versification are not and should not be the same as those for Scottish. Just as poesie is also politics in the treatise, so it is throughout the book, which proceeds wtihin a network of Protestant politics, from the Huguenot who printed it while in exile in Edinburgh to the substance of the works.

The book itself has a wonderful sense of presence, including lots of white space and even blank pages (a sure sign of luxuriousness, given the cost of paper). The layout of these poems is a lovely example of early shape poetry:

One of the most interesting aspects of the book isn’t what is in it, but what binds it:

That’s a beautiful, and unusual, orange vellum binding, with tooling, including the name of its owner, W. Lord Burghley. According to research done for a Folger exhibition, this binding is nearly exact that of another copy of this book, one which is tooled with the name “W. Lord Hunsden”. The existence of the two bindings, plus the face that this binding does not resemble the bindings of other books Burghley owned, suggests that it could be a presentation copy by James VI to Burghley–bringing us back to the intersection of poesie and politics.

It was the binding that brought my student to this book–Michael came across it by browsing through Hamnet for “tooling” and “ties”. But, as we’ve seen before, when you start looking at a book from one point of view, others open up, so that he moved from physical object, to text, to social and networks–none of which, of course, are separate from each other.