Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 22, 2011

fetish object or the real thing?

James Gleick argues that widespread digitization of old books means that the books themselves are being reduced to the status of "fetish objects" — in other words, that, given sufficiently high-resolution digital imaging, the codexes themselves have no substantial value for scholars and readers. To this claim Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, responds:

Mr. Gleick is right to say that the digitization of precious materials gives them another life on the Web, and that research libraries can and should make these materials available to the broadest possible audience. But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued.

If the Folger Shakespeare Library were to digitize all 82 copies of the First Folio that we possess — each of them unique — we would not have made the book fully accessible. Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers.

It is one thing to look at a digital photograph taken at the top of Mount Everest and feel the thrill of “being there.” It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it.

While I want to be on Witmore's side in this dispute, I'm not sure that this response offers much of substance. For instance:

But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued. Right — but can't that be done digitally? If we look at, and carefully compare, high-resolution images of "other like objects," aren't we getting the same information? (Especially if those images are accompanied by information about dimensions, or if two similar books are photographed together.) I need Witmore to tell me in more detail what, precisely, makes the encounter with the physical text superior.

Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers. Again, this can be done digitally, can it not?

It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it. Why can't I look at the digitized pages of the Folio and ask the same question? In fact, I know I can — so once more, where is the difference?

These are genuine, not rhetorical questions. If the digital images are poor, we all know what the problems are; I've done a good deal of archival research that would have been impossible had I had images significantly less precise than my own eyesight. (Pray that you never have to do archival work on a writer whose handwriting is as bad as W. H. Auden's.)

But as digital images increase in quality, I can see all sorts of ways in which being able to spend as much time as I want "poring over" pages on my computer — zooming in on troublesome areas, say, or juxtaposing two pages on one large monitor for purposes of careful comparison — could be not just equal but superior to seeing the "real thing." Help me out here, proponents of on-site research!

18 comments:

  • I started out with similar feelings when I opened my first eBook on my iPad. I was completely prepared for an "inauthentic" experience.

    Now I'm over it. The words are the thing, the delivery mechanism is just unimportant.

  • I wonder if Gutenberg got the same flack—something missing from the fact it wasn't hand copied by men in brown robes.

    Seriously, just the hypertext dimension alone makes digital texts richer, at least for learning and research purposes. Embedded video and audio ain't that bad either. (Remember the books in Myst with the embedded videos? Spooky prescience by the Miller bros.)

    Another advantage is that many more will be able to see, close-up, texts and documents they might never get to see first hand.

    And yes, the quality of images is important, but so is the importance of good typography and design. Please, let us rise above Arial and float width columns!

  • Robert Ayers said...

    Pertaining to your second question:

    If the topic of the research is the history of printed books then the researcher would have to physically observe the books and not simply read other research. If the topic is simply Shakespeare's plays in printed form then using secondary digital sources is fine. Or am I missing the point?

  • You're right that the letter is more tantalizing than convincing in identifying what physical objects can do that the digital cannot. I suspect that if Witmore had more space, he could have provided more details. (But I also suspect there are all sorts of other things going on that would make a director of the Folger want to respond to Gleick's op-ed, a piece that I loved.) I'm still mulling over some of the ins and outs of how each side simplifies the other and trying to concoct a blog post that will try to flesh out some of my thoughts rather than hijacking your comments.

  • Some features of early books that can sometimes only be diagnosed in the flesh and which may be crucial to the interpretation of the texts they contain: collation; binding structures; evidence for missing or tipped-in leaves; small differences in quality of parchment or paper; bite of type in paper; sequence of work in multiple campaigns of writing and illuminating a manuscript or in glossing in either mss or printed books; the difference between a blot and a hole and a bit of lint; palimpsested texts; show-through or transfer from adjacent pages; subtle changes of ink; dry-point glosses; ruling; watermarks; etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, sometimes some of these things are easier to see with photography or digital images than with the naked eye - but there are some things you need to feel (without white gloves on!). The optimimum, imho, would be to be able to have access to both images and the artifact itself, because each is likely to raise questions that only the other can answer.

  • Vince Virgilio said...

    Books aren't fetish objects already? There are plenty which evoke an objective beauty and mystery.

    Everyone knows that complements the message, and is particularly effective in 3D space.

    Digitization into the ether is an encouragement, not a replacement. Like cash flow in the production of wealth.

    The fascination with abstraction and replacement probably has something to do with an information-theoretic mindset, which promotes the quantities of a message over the qualities.

    (Now for my own Final Theory of Everything . . .)

    Seems very Protestant! Catholics are more carnal. Maybe they'll be the book-keepers at the end of time.

  • Vince Virgilio said...

    Also, I vaguely recall an interview with Steven Spielberg where he described how, during his early years, he greatly enjoyed working with the film material itself (the stuff that runs through the projector, not the stories). He connected a lot of his success to that original dedication---someone who wasn't as captured as he was with the raw matter of the field couldn't do as well or go so far, perhaps.

    Obviously, he's gone on to some rather large digital projects. But I think that is besides the point. I think he'd still be splicing tape if he had to. And the need not to hasn't, by itself, produced any great producers. (But now I'm way beyond my ken.)

  • Don't get me wrong here. I own a Kindle, and enjoy it immensely. I have even found myself more appreciative of e-readers because of your writing about them, Dr. Jacobs. However...

    There is something of what Ken Myers might term, 'the gnostic impulse' in the notion that physical, printed books are (or on their way to becoming) fetishes. That's not even to mention the optimism inherent in expecting you'll always have power available (a requirment) to view electronic documents.

  • And the digital book is not a fetish?

  • (As for the question of whether a digital image can enhance the original, sure, that is true of analogue photographic images as well - there are lots of books that have been available for decades only in hyper-faithful reproductions, which are enhancements of sorts. However if you talk about enhancement and "poring over details" it seems to me that you cannot be referring only to textual content (which is itself digital in nature) but also if not primarily to the study of the book as object, and in that respect I think that the materiality of a book by definition cannot be subsumed by its digital copy. This was brought home to me while working at the New Zealand Eletronic Text Centre on an edition of the poems of William Golder, a Scot who emigrated to New Zealand in the 19th century. I spent some weeks copying and tagging the text from high resolution scans before I actually saw the originals – and they were tiny! The book as an object looked nothing like I had expected. Size however is not something we had a tag for, and digital objects are rarely of an “original size”, 1:1 as it were. So while our digital edition added something to the book, chiefly in terms of access, it also took something away. You may think the loss was not of great importance, but it still needs to be critically accounted for, and I don’t think for a moment that this amounts to fetishising the book.)

  • Very helpful responses all 'round — thanks, readers!

  • Michael Straight said...

    No matter what your process for converting analogue to digital, there will be errors. More errors than you expect, even if you acknowledge there will be more than you expect.

  • I like books. I like to hold them and write in them and spill salsa on their pages while I am standing in the kitchen and eating Triscuits over the sink. Beyond that, the whole idea of reading things on a Kindle kind of makes my head ache about an inch behind my eyebrows and gets me wondering if I would have to give deodorant in order to become Old Order Amish.

    Even still, I think I have to agree that technology probably will make booky-books obsolete, and may already have begun to do so in some fields. I'm writing a doctoral dissertation in Northwest Semitic Philology at the University of Chicago. Have you ever tried to read ancient texts without high-resolution scans of infra-red photographs, painstakingly contrasted and depixellated to help you see the difference between the water damage and the chicken scratches? To do so is to understand why there will never be a truly great Dead Sea Scrolls scholar among the Old Order Amish -- deodorized or otherwise.

    The Jordanians can keep the freaking Copper Scroll. I'm waiting for Amazon to start selling the e-version for $4.99 on the internet. That's why God invented Advil.

  • I puzzle over the drive to digitize everything.

    One observation no one has made is that, conceptually, the embodiment of intellectual property (the book, the CD, the book spoken on a CD, the book displayed on an e-reader, etc.) is less important than the property as a virtual object, capable of multiple embodiments simultaneously. So unless one is a researcher into the arcane bits of history revolving around a work's creation, why would a Fitzgerald first edition be any more valuable or interesting than a pile of loose printouts of the raw text (since many of his works are now public domain) or an mp3 of someone speaking it?

    Writ large, I could easily argue that this is another step along to road to oblivion, the impulse to escape our physical selves and the sensorium and to finally disappear into our own heads, to become virtual entities ourselves. That may sound like hyperbole, but the essential elements have been explored amply in fiction already and lots of technophiliacs can't wait to get there. Gamers enveloped in their virtual worlds are the obvious example.

  • Bill P: there will never be a truly great Dead Sea Scrolls scholar among the Old Order Amish -- deodorized or otherwise.

    I'm going to file this claim away and if it is ever refuted, boy will you be embarrassed.

    brutus: So unless one is a researcher into the arcane bits of history revolving around a work's creation, why would a Fitzgerald first edition be any more valuable or interesting than a pile of loose printouts of the raw text (since many of his works are now public domain) or an mp3 of someone speaking it?

    Seems like this would apply equally well to ordinary paperback editions of Fitzgerald. After all, texts have been "capable of multiple embodiments simultaneously" since monks tarted making multiple copies in their scriptoria. (I speak, let me confess, as someone who has never been especially interested in first editions or even manuscripts — though I have enjoyed working with them in some of my scholarly tasks. Any old copy of The Great Gatsby will do for me, because for me what Fitzgerald wrote is the source of fascination, not any particular embodiment of it.

  • Professor Jacobs: Note that I have given myself some wiggle room here. I'm not necessarily ruling out good scholarship, or even - maybe - a charismatic and reasonably well-credentialed popularizer. But true greatness? No chance. Not without the scans. Find me one, and I shall surely raise thee up a broad and spacious barn with the labor of mine own hands.

  • "Codexes themselves have no substantial value for scholars and readers."

    But verifying the actual existence of a codex and the accuracy of copies (digital or otherwise) is of the utmost value for scholars (and readers)!

  • It is interesting to me that Gleik uses the word "fetish". There are many other words he might have chosen, but he selected on freighted with negative sexual meaning. I wonder why...

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