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!