A Whole New World

In diligently navigating my way through the concepts of book history, I find I have to keep reminding myself of the importance of it all. For me, the discipline of literary studies has always been of great interest. I believe there are infinite possibilities for the interpretation of literature and that many of the methods for doing so have yet to be invented. However, the excitement that the field of book history has to offer comes to me in dosages ardently prescribed by each new text I read. Having just been introduced to the intricate field of study that is book history, I am surprised by some of the common characteristics that are shared between the history of books and literary studies. Overall, I am confident that the enthusiasm that I have for literary studies will only serve to bolster this newfound interest for the history of books.

What caught my eye the most was the difference in the overarching goals of each field. While literary studies seems to seek a comprehension for the meaning of the text both within the text itself and within the context of society, book history recounts the ways in which text shaped meaning. Darnton articulated it best when he declared that “books do not merely recount history; they make it” (135). Throughout the history of each of these fields, a multitude of contributing voices has debated over the importance of authorship in relation to that of the readers or of society in general. From the New Bibliographers to the Annale School, the discipline of book history has seen its share of disagreements on the matter, and it seems as though it may be a disagreement that will never be fully resolved. Is it possible that one actor within the life cycle of a book may have a greater influence on it than the others? From my limited experience thus far I am inclined to believe that each contributor, though unique, has an equal stake in the outcome of a text’s meaning.

Furthermore, both areas retain a certain dedication for creating clarity from obscurity. In reading Elliot’s recollections of his initiation into the world of a book historian, I was struck by his commitment to learning more about the author Besant. His journey toward analyzing the truth of that time period consisted of weeding through data, documents and records to be met by dead-ends or unreliable conclusions (as so many book historians seem to encounter) that prolonged his search. As Elliot said, historians are responsible for looking beyond the clues and assessing them for what they really stand for (285-286). Just as members of the field of literary studies retain clues from the text and from other surrounding sources to gain a certain level of understanding, so too do book historians acknowledge that the small records and pieces of data represent a much larger meaning, if only they could uncover the truth.

We are just two weeks into this class about book history, and I am already convinced of the immortality of the effects of books and of books themselves. 

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3 thoughts on “A Whole New World

  1. I’m also very interested in the field of literary studies, which inspired my post that questions book history. Your comment about your enthusiasm for literary studies as a way to bolster your newfound interest for book history reminds that I can still place high value on that field and also apply what I know to book history. I too was interested in Eliot’s work with Besant, especially when he mentions that using quantitative methods enabled him to move beyond what literary studies can do. A truly significant way to be initiated into the realm that is book history, Eliot, as I can only assume, was able to contribute facts about Besant that only book historians are able to produce. In literary studies, at least in my case, I never thought much about using quantitative data or looking at material characteristics of books in order to assess a text. Although we are a short way into the class, I am very excited to learn more about this whole new world.

  2. As an English major who has also always been an avid reader, I agree with you about the excitement inherent in the ‘limitless’ possibilities of literary studies. Books have always been, and will always be, reinterpreted–the ever-changing culture we live in allows for this. However, it is this exact excitement that has pushed many of toward literary studies that I think we also must be warily cognizant of. Often, such freedom can be problematic (I find myself reliving past essay where I’ve over extended interpretations to make a more ‘creative’ essay). Thinking about it more, it almost seems that it would be a blending of the two approaches (if that is even possible?) that would reveal the most about the history of books. Were authors of the 17th century more interested in motifs of sadness of hope? Were 18th books filled with metaphors or similes? Creating real fact, about real aspects of books that are interesting. I wonder if in applying the statistical analysis of quantitative methods to the practices of literary studies that these questions could be answered.

    • Your comment, Jeff, raises yet another area of quantitative methods in literary studies, the use of text mining to discover–for example–the uses of particular words or phrases in massive texts.

      An article (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/176.abstract) was published in Science a few years ago about using Google books to map changes in the language. You can read about the article, and responses to it, in this post (http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Elicit-a-Cultural/125731/) from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Using Google’s n-grams, you can type in a word or phrase and learn some things about the frequency of its usage. And Google n-grams is only one of the most basic, easy-to-use tools.

      For example, following on your comment, I typed “melancholy” into Google n-grams and discovered there are two peak periods in the 17th century for use of that word: 1630-1640 and 1650-1660. That doesn’t tell you much, really, by itself. But they do sort of coincide with the turmoil around the English Civil War in the middle of the century.

      For more information about text mining, you could look at the MLA resources on this topic. Alan Liu, in particular, is a prominent figure in digital humanities. His contribution about social reading is well worth attention, as it takes up some of the issues we’ve already raised in this class. Here’s the link: http://dlsanthology.commons.mla.org/text-analysis-data-mining-and-visualizations-in-literary-scholarship/

      I’m intrigued by both the promises and the limitations of using “big data” to help us understand literary culture. Like any methodology, it reveals some things and obscures others.

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