Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 29, 2010

the disembodied reviewer?

Let me return to my previous comments on Jason Kottke’s distinction between old and new forms of reviewing, and to other people's thoughts. For instance, the question that my commenter Michael raises: “To what extent can reviews be docetic?” — a reference to the Christian heresy called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus was pure spirit who only appeared (Greek dokein) to have a body. Or this comment by Tim Carmody: “Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. (Let me quickly note that I never said that the “intellectual and aesthetic engagement” Tim describes is what “a review should be,” only that it’s what I try to do. And, implicitly, that it’s worth doing.)

So I take it what what Michael and Tim are saying is that my practice as a reviewer risks a neglect of material conditions (I’m mildly surprised that the word “Gnostic” didn't turn up) in its focus on the “transcendent” — the disembodied. I would disagree with these views on several scores, first (and maybe foremost) by insisting that there is a great deal of difference between the intellectual and the transcendent.

But let’s think about this is a somewhat more practical way, along the lines of an earlier post of mine. In my class this semester on Christianity and Fantasy, we just finished reading The Lord of the Rings (and are now moving on to Philip Pullman). I had ordered a particular edition of the text, as we teachers always do; but this is a book that many of the students know well, and, reasonably enough, rather than buying the ordered edition they used the ones they already owned. So in the class I saw one-volume hardbacks, one-volume paperbacks, and various versions of the good old three-volume sets: large trade paperbacks and cheap mass-market paperbacks of various vintages.

What I want to affirm is simply this: it makes perfect sense to say that we all read the same book. Or, to put it another way, the differences in the material forms of the various volumes are insignificant in comparison to the shared intellectual experience of encountering Tolkien’s story, a story which cannot be identified with any one embodiment. And when we start talking about Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy on Tuesday — another text a number of my students already own — the same will be true.

There are of course exceptions to this rule, but for most of the books we read it will hold: differences in printing, binding, and illustration from one edition of a text to another are quite minor in comparison with the cross-vehicular integrity of the text itself.

6 comments:

  • I'm generally in agreement, but I am also wondering if the availability of multiple iterations of LOTR does not already shape our engagement with the text along the lines that Walter Benjamin outlined in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In other words hasn't the mass availability of LOTR in a variety of editions of greater or lesser quality not already preconditioned our response to it's content in important ways? I'm not sure that I have a firm answer to this question yet, but I am curious about how you might see the matter.

    I'm also curious if you would maintain the distinction if e-readers or hypertext versions of LOTR were added to the mix?

  • Did the reviewers of all the different editions of LOTR read the same book? Would we not expect one to comment on the illustrations unique to one luxury edition or another to critique the layout of a cheap mass-market paperback edition?

    The book historian Jonathan Rose says: “The problem with focusing on texts is that no one can read a text—not until it is incarnated in the material form of a book.”

    At what point do differences in material forms become material?

  • I discuss these questions in the post I link to above, but let me just say that I can't tell the difference between students who have read one edition and students who have read another. Illustrated or not illustrated, whatever, unless of course they mention the illustrations themselves, or the cover designs.

    The question, to be clear, is not whether readers notice illustrations or covers or binding, but whether the core reading experience differs from edition to edition. I can't see anything, not yet anyway. This is true of the many books that students read in multiple editions, with the exception of variety in translations, since in those cases people are reading different texts. They don't say different kinds of things in class, as far as I can tell, and they don't do different on quizzes. I can't tell from the kinds of papers they write what editions they have read.

    What would we even expect the differences (in reading experience, in comprehension, whatever) to be?

  • Nice follow-up post. First, can I say that it's VERY weird that both Michael and I (not having read each other, I don't think) found ourselves talking about incarnation quasi-theologically?*

    I SHOULD also add that I'm using "transcendent" and "immanent" really only in the sense that Genette does, and not like, say, Kant would. To make a distinction that might be relevant, when you talk about a book, you're not necessarily talking about an ideal entity that exists nowhere except as a metaphysical Concept, but you're also usually not talking about any PARTICULAR object. Even when you're distinguishing between different media or editions, like Kottke sees in Amazon reviews, you're talking about many many different copies, all of which get brought into an umbrella concept by their title (plus whatever other information is relevant to distinguish it). But every reader (or viewer, etc.) only has that PARTICULAR copy at hand.

    The real question seems to be what is the appropriate way to reference these distinctions in particular kinds/genres of writing about these objects. You could say - it's unfair and misleading to give a book a bad review because it's not yet available in a certain edition in a review for a different edition. If you want to comment on the quality or availability of a Kindle edition, fairness/honesty to the author of the book and the reader of your review suggests that you keep those comments OUT of a review of the hardcover edition of the book.

    OR you could say - reviewers in an Amazon product page don't (and shouldn't) have the same conventions as reviewers writing for a newspaper or magazine or academic journal, and readers, authors, publishers, and retailers shouldn't expect them to. Likewise a reviewer or retailer selling a rare or unique copy of a book would include different information than a standard retailer.

    OR you could say - reviewers (in whatever genre) should try to address both the immanent and transcendent qualities of the work when they offer their reviews, especially when they know that the differences (whichever might be relevant) make a difference. And retailers and publishers should try to help reviewers offer those distinctions as a courtesy and aid to their readers.

    I'm convinced that it's all about sorting out everyone's expectations, which are currently all over the map. I'm also convinced that we will (in general) settle on some pretty well-recognized conventions here, and that many individuals (in particular) will ignore them out of either obliviousness or as an act of protest. And our ability to factor and filter this will become part of our expectations too.

    (*I have a theory about this recurrence of incarnation in the history of media, which is not just that this whole issue of embodiment makes the two germane to each other, or that our philosophical thinking has a theological residue, like Heidegger or Nietzsche might argue, but that in some ways you HAVE to approach this not as an either-or, a this-or-that, but as a genuine mystery, a paradox, that can only be disentangled, not totally deciphered.)

  • I've collected Henry and Mudge books over the past few months; the illustrations are inherent to the story.
    So I think one interesting point at which to study this question is the place at which illustrations in children's books become variable. They vary from edition to edition without changing text.

    At what point can the pictures be allowed to vary? Who could change those of Goodnight, Moon? Or Ole Risom's I Am A Bunny?

    Yet there are many visual interpretations of Alice in Wonderland.

    Maybe you are only referring to readers who have past beyond the level of literal thinking to attain a certain capacity of imagination, freeing them to become increasingly independent of the physical medium (sensory experience).

  • I also find this question interesting when reading the last of the Dick Francis books, written with his son, Felix.
    How much do the changes in the physical object affect the reading of the later work? They seem inferior; how much of that perception is due to the writing, and how much is due to larger print, unyellowed pages, smoother paper, and absence of loving wear?

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