Just Another School or Truly a Separate Discipline? Take 2

I’ll admit, I was very hesitant about book history at the beginning of the term. Coming from a background that emphasizes literary criticism, I didn’t understand how book history could contribute anything to someone’s understanding of a book, author, etc. How could using quantitative methods really contribute to the comprehension of a book or success of an author? At the start of the class I saw book history and literary criticism as two very different entities, one that seemed much more plausible and the other that was this strange being, which probably came from me creating a huge separation between the two, I didn’t see book history as anything like literary criticism, which is probably where my lack of understanding came from. So, as a way to wrap up the term and these blog posts, I figured I’d conclude with the question I asked at the beginning of the term:

How is the history of the book different from literary criticism?

I feel like the best way to answer this question is to look at the history of the book as a behind-the-scenes (and after-the-scenes, if you will) look at a text or author, in a sense. With book history you can get a better sense of the significance of a book without focusing solely on the words in a book. You can look at the material of a book, the production history, the readership, etc, all things that will reveal these interesting details about a book. While some of the conclusions drawn may be similar to those that can be drawn from a book, it does so in a very different manner.

Take the Shakespeare example that I mentioned in my first blog post. Shakespeare is a highly regarded author in our society, but why? The forms of literary criticism that I am more familiar with may say it’s because he contributed to the English language, that the themes of his works are universal, and many other things. However, with book history, you can use methods to analyze his popularity and high regard in the details beyond the text. When was it that his popularity began to grow? Was it immediate or did it come much later? How do his works and the contexts in which they were written relate? There are a myriad of questions that can be asked and answered, and book history helps in answering these questions from a perspective that I never really considered, or even thought possible.

It’s been fascinating to expand my knowledge in general, from what I know as literary criticism to how to use quantitative methods in a humanities field. Specifically, I’ve been able to combine my love of language with book history, using the methods I’ve learned to look deeper into the significance language can have on society. While I could have simply read articles or analyzed the contents of a dictionary to get a similar conclusion, I don’t think the conclusions I’ve made in my paper would have been as significant or interesting without the statistical analysis or the analysis of readers. Simple, maybe, but I’m really glad I was able to learn about book history as a discipline and expand my horizons beyond the more traditional forms of literary analysis. It’s really been a great semester!

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Responses to the Conference Presentations

The conferences this week were certainly very interesting. On a personal level, having to condense my paper into a 20 minute presentation was rather difficult but a fruitful experience. It was definitely a learning experience to have to organize my thoughts and alter them in a way that would make the audience more interested and engaged with my topic, and hopefully I did so successfully.

Being a bit general, it was great to see how everyone’s topic developed from day one of our research until this point. It was great to be able to see that development over the weeks and the almost final products during the conferences. It was also interesting to see how much each person’s topic differed from one another. While there were the broad similarities, each one was distinct on multiple levels. It would be way to difficult to respond to just one presentation, so I’ll just respond to all of them!

John’s presentation was interesting to me because I don’t know too much about Moby-Dick. I never knew how unsuccessful the work and Melville were and how much events (like his death) and reviewers influenced the classification of the work as the “Great American Novel”. It’s strange how something can be classified as such even though it had very little success in the beginning. This presentation was really enlightening and makes me curious about the success of other books, and how many other books and authors experienced the same development as Moby Dick.

I enjoyed Brie’s presentation a lot because it really connected to my own topic. While overall there were different perspectives broadly speaking, we both were focused on the effects a group of books/author/book had on women and society overall. I liked how she was able to use the content of the Three Guineas letters as a way to gain a sense of who was reading and responding to the work, and conclude that this work was able to influence the individuals who read it.

I never really considered how an author’s success and book length related, and Ira’s presentation really helped me realize that there is indeed a relationship. It was interesting to see the development of the data from a very long list of bestsellers, to a more specific set of data that reveals how an author’s success and the length of a book are related. I’ll definitely be thinking about that the next time I pick up a book.

Jeff’s topic was something I know nothing about, or even heard of, but was interesting nonetheless. It was nice to see how he was able to make a connection between Seeley’s The Expansion of England and the mentality of expansion (and even a connection to our reading in the beginning of the semester, phenomenology). I never really realized how much of an influence something like this could have on the reading process and it was nice to be able to see a specific example of this in Jeff’s presentation.

It was really cool how Tim was able to analyze his sister’s data in order to gain a greater understanding of her reading processes and the influence she was able to make on other readers that may, like her, not be “normal”, or a “typical” teenage reader. I said this before during our workshop in class, but the data used in the presentation and paper are a really good depiction of her reading habits and an interesting way of giving us an idea of how she grew as a critic.

I feel like there is so much more I can say about each presentation since they were all so different and enlightening. It was great to be able to participate in a conference like this and be able to share my own work as well as learn more about the research and findings of my other classmates.

 

 

More on Language: Dictionaries and Spelling Reform

As a followup to the critique from my previous blog post, as well as a way to move forward with my research for the paper, I’m going to respond more to Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America. After reading the relevant sections of the book over the weekend, I’ve been able to move forward with my research topic and establish a very good sense of the direction I’m going in, which I’ll get to later.

While the focus is ultimately on Howells, I became more interested in the topic of spelling reform and dictionaries. English spelling was chaotic in his opinion, and he hated the spelling in dictionaries (Nettels 3,4). The most striking sentence about the use of dictionaries was, “Because Americans were not bound by birth to a particular social class and its usages, they enjoyed the prospect of climbing the social ladder by acquiring certain tastes and manners, above all those habits of speech widely regarded as ‘the surest test of a gentleman’” (11). Dictionaries, among other things, were one of the mediums used to learn the “proper language”. This seemed interesting to me, so I wrote it down and continued reading. Throughout much of what I read, there was this same general idea repeated, that language indicated one’s social class. The words that were accepted in society, as well as the “correct” pronunciations, would be present in those dictionaries, so those that were considered established members of society would be the individuals who used those words (18). The rest of the book continues on to focus more on dialects, which I originally wanted to focus on. But this detail about language, dictionaries, and social class really stuck with me.

Now for my paper I’m thinking on focusing more on dictionaries. Who was reading them? More specifically, what were individual’s occupational rank? It’d be interesting to delve deeper into what the book says to see if people attempted to better themselves in society through dictionaries. Although I’ve only just begun, the data I’ve collected so far from What Middletown Read is very promising. After searching “dictionary”, there were approximately 122 patron results. Most transactions were classified as “low white collar” and “skilled”. Using dictionaries as a way for social betterment seems like a proper conclusion, but still something I want to look into more closely. There were many details, such as women being classified occupationally by what their husbands or fathers were classified as that I want to research more.

In addition to looking further into the specific dictionaries, I’d probably also look up spelling reform at the time. Maybe there was a larger movement around the time of What Middletown Read’s collection, or maybe one just before. Either way, I need to look further into the historical aspect of the time period so as to look for more context. And, as I discussed during my individual conference today, there might be particular wording in the dictionary prefaces that explain the author’s purpose for compiling the dictionary. Perhaps spelling reform will be a reason, or maybe I will discover something else.

This book was really interesting and SUPER helpful, as I now have a clearer, less hazy topic and I know the direction I’m moving in!

Howells: A Promising Starting Point for Research

This project has definitely been challenging. I’ve struggled with finding research for my topic and trying to narrow my topic down to what I actually want to be studying. I think my biggest problem was that my topic was way too narrow. I wanted to focus specifically on how dialect in Uncle Remus influenced/affected/etc. society as a whole. While that’s interesting and all, I wasn’t getting anywhere. So, a bit discouraged, I went into office hours for help. When explaining what it was that I wanted to research, what came out of my mouth was something completely different than what I had been working on. I want to study dialects in literature to see how society reacted/how society was influenced by the representation of dialects. Still related, of course, but a bit broader, allowing me the opportunity to find more research for my new topic.  While it still needs a bit more narrowing down, I’m at least getting somewhere with my research.

While in office hours, William Dean Howells was brought to my attention and I’ve found a book that will be very helpful in guiding me to a more specific topic. The book, Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America by Elsa Nettels, focuses on Howells as a “writer about language,” including his opinions on the English language as well as his use of dialect for his characters.

Since I’ve only recently checked out the book from the library, I’m not entirely sure what I’ll discover about my topic. What I can tell so far is that it will be helpful in narrowing down my topic and will most likely lead me to other resources that I can use for research.

In the book’s introduction, Nettels says that, “In novel after novel Howells showed how characters reveal themselves and their social conditions by their speech” (3). Later on in a chapter entitled “The Problem of ‘Negro Dialect’ in Literature”, it is said that, “Howell’s belief in the power of dialect to unite readers in the recognition of their common humanity thus receives its severest test in the writing, including his own, which purports to render the speech of blacks” (73). It seems this book will provide me with some very valuable information of both the benefits of dialect in writing, and what that meant for society, as well as the problems that arise for certain groups when their dialect is portrayed in a work. Of course, it’s too early for me to tell since I haven’t actually read the book yet, but the table of contents seem very promising!

The beginning chapters of this book will be very helpful as they provide a background of Howells’ views about language. And because one of the chapters focuses specifically on American and British English, it made me wonder if people in Britain were reading Howells. I immediately went to the Reading Experience Database and found that people were reading his reviews and books (I haven’t looked too far into this, though, since I’m still establishing my ideas). What Middletown Read also had entries too. So I’m confident that reading Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America will help immensely, both in finding more research materials and in formulating a more precise topic.

That being said, there were a few others books I found that were related to the keywords of Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America, which I’m adding to my temporary bibliography, below.

Jordan, Cynthia S. Second Stories: The Politics of Language, Form, and Gender in Early American Fictions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989. Print.

Nettels, Elsa. Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’s America. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 1988. Print.

Sewell, David R. Mark Twain’s Languages: Discourse, Dialogue, and Linguistic Variety. Berkeley: University of California, 1987. Print.

I may also use the websites below, to see who was reading Howells’ works.

Reading Experience Database http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/reading/

What Middletown Read http://www.bsu.edu/libraries/wmr/

Project Proposal: Banned Books

My research question is still a work in progress, as is expected, but for now I at least have a start in the direction I’d like to be headed. For now, I intend to study the readership patterns of banned books, specifically the fluctuations in reading habits before and after a book was banned, because I wish to discover how banning books affects readers (does the readership of a banned book increase after a book is banned, etc) in order to help explain the major beliefs of society. I know this is still a bit rough, but is at least a starting point.

I’ve left my research question a bit broad, as I am still working on finding more information on books that were banned due to dialect use. I would also, of course, need to narrow my research down to a specific book and time period, but I’m not quite there yet. What lead me to this current research question was, of course, my interest in the censorship of books but also a comment cited in an article about the publication history of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain, in response to the bans and criticism of his work, responds, “‘This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!’ Some accounts quote him as saying ‘twenty-five thousand copies.’” If banning books is supposed to decrease readership of the work, why would it increase and what affect does this have on readers and society as a whole?

I did more research on the concept of banning books, and discovered a portion of the ALA website that focuses on banned and challenged books. According to the site, “books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information…Often challenges are motivated by a desire to protect children from ‘inappropriate’ sexual content or ‘offensive’ language.” If this is the case, why have these books become so popular in our society, seen as being classic works, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird among them. Many of these works have been made into movies, republished, etc. There is even a whole week committed to banned books. So what really makes them popular? Is it in fact the stories or perhaps the fact that they were banned or challenged?

The research portion of this is where I’m stuck. I’d really like to focus on the language aspect of books, focusing on censorship due to dialect use rather than a taboo word, but I haven’t had much luck. Here’s some background I do have on the topic, though, and why I’ve become interested in the language aspect of censorship. For a paper last year, I studied African American English and how it’s used in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus. Many thought/think that because the author is a Southern, white man writing in an AAE dialect that the work must be racist. However, after researching his history, that doesn’t seem to be the case but appears to be, what some say, a sort of ethnography of African American folk tales and the dialect at the time. Before my research, I had never heard of Uncle Remus, but rather the character Briar Rabbit (a name that was altered from the original Bre’r). I had never read the book, but had heard the stories (like the Tar Baby story, or the whole Disney Splash Mountain amusement ride). I’m curious to see if the censorship of this book and the discrimination it apparently conveys affects the dialect as a whole, and solidifies the preference for a standard form of English, I’ve just had trouble finding the relevant research. Perhaps my topic is too specific as of now, because I’m approaching it with a specific goal in mind. I may just need to broaden my question in order to make an interesting discovery.

Anyways, once I narrow down my topic, my intent is to choose one book and research its history. How many people read it before it became controversial, and how many afterwards? If applicable, I’d like to use the What Middletown Read website, or something like it, to collect data on readership. I’d also like to find some articles that are more relevant to the topic of banned books and language use (other than  taboo words), but this has proven difficult thus far. The ALA website has been helpful in giving me a general overview of the topic of banned and challenged books, but I know I need to delve much further into the topic.

The one question I do have now is: which topic seems more interesting to you, the reader? Would you be more interested in hearing about the topic of banned books and the increased readership afterwards or rather banned books and the relationship to the English language (of course, these topics are very basic as of now)? The latter is more interesting to me, but as we’ve discussed in class, it’s also important to keep the interest of the reader in mind.

Below is a temporary timeline, as it will most likely change as I begin to narrow down my topic and find relevant resources.

March 15-20: Work on narrowing down my topic and finding relevant resources

March 20: Blog Post 7-critique of one of my sources

March 20-26: Continue working on argument of the paper, collecting necessary data, etc

March 27: Individual conference

March 27-April 5: Work on rough draft, incorporating quantitative evidence and other resources

April 5: Finish and edit rough draft

April 6: Email rough draft to partner by midnight

April 8: workshop Essay 3

April 24: Final draft due by midnight

design x food

Google Images became overwhelming while I searched for data visualizations. There were so many different types of visualizations to choose from; some boring, some eye-catching and others very confusing. Perhaps I liked the image below because of its striking, complex, and also simple qualities. Or maybe I was just hungry. Nonetheless, I chose this image because I wasn’t quite sure if it would meet the common standards of Tufte, Miller, and others we’ve studied thus far.

design x food

It took some investigating to figure out what exactly this graphic is trying to show. I didn’t know if this was representing details of an average American’s breakfast, if it was about cereal specifically, I couldn’t tell. While it was taken out of context, I felt it was problematic that it took so much searching to determine what it was the image was trying to convey. I certainly couldn’t tell from the image alone.

What I found was a book created by designer Ryan MacEachern that represents his diet through graphics rather than just numbers. He presents pages of graphics along with a table detailing his food intake for the day, explaining that the book explores “the nutritional values of the diet and presents it in a contrasting way, it juxtaposes the dull and boring appearance of the food I was eating by presenting data using colourful vibrant foods, which were almost entirely excluded from my diet” (MacEachern).

While overall these images, and the book in its entirety, are very visually appealing, many of the visuals seem to overshadow MacEachern’s overall goal, something which Tufte warns against. Sure, showing the nutritional values with cereal is more interesting than with tuna, and is a direct representation of the juxtaposition he was aiming at, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the data. He was actually eating tuna in some cases, not the sugary cereal. The point here doesn’t seem to be on the numbers, but rather the visual representation and juxtaposition of the different diets, the differences in vibrancy of his diets. The statistical qualities, which I assume were supposed to be the main point, are pushed to the background (literally, the tables are very difficult to read even in the book) and the images distort the numbers. While in the case of the image above, the use of different cereals is definitely interesting and colorful, I was more interested in the representation than the actual dietary information. I noticed the food more than the numbers, which wasn’t really the point.

That being said, his representations do have some strengths. By transforming his tables of nutritional values into a graphical representation (even though it may be a bit distracting), the numbers become more visually appealing to the reader. Also, the basic representation is simple. He was trying to show the percentage fat, protein, and carbs make up of a day’s worth of calories and, if the distracting visual was taken out, the viewer could clearly see the breakdown of the numbers, seeing how, for example, the 38% of protein made up 482k calories. The graph is focused, in that he takes the key qualities of the table that he wants to show to create a bigger picture. Rather than focusing on the nutritional values as separate entities, he combines them to show how they make up one larger characteristic of his diet (calories).

The problem here is that there’s an uneven balance of design and statistical knowledge, the design aspect clearly winning. Yes, the graphical representations are more striking than a simpler pie chart could be, but it is also a distraction. Frankly, he would have been better off with the tables included in his book and a simpler pie chart, as those are more focused. The goal of this compilation is very interesting, but I don’t think, unfortunately, that the data visualization meets it in an effective way.

Table 8-2: An Evaluation

The table below is from page 276 of William J. Gilmore’s chapter, “Deep Structure and Rural New England Mentalités: Reading and the Family Circle, 1780-1835”.

Image

This table was the easiest for me to understand out of all the ones included in Gilmore’s chapter, as it is focused on only a few key points that give a picture of how large family libraries of the Windsor District were from 1787 to 1830. Unlike the other tables it is fairly self-contained. I tend to struggle when it comes to interpreting tables, but by looking at this table before reading an explanation, I could understand what Gilmore is trying to show the reader. He supplies us with a range of library sizes in volumes and then the number and percent of libraries that were that respective volume size. While in some of the other tables the use of both number and percent of libraries wasn’t completely necessary, and fairly confusing, the inclusion of both in this tables was very helpful. In including both, the reader gets the sense of how many libraries were made of a certain number of volumes while getting an idea of the percentage of libraries these libraries made up of the total.

Hopefully my explanation of this table makes sense. If not, it just goes to show how difficult it is to explain some data in words and how vital it is for an author to include tables and graphs in his or her writing. That’s why it was helpful that Gilmore included this table in his chapter rather than just explaining it. While he does give an overall explanation on the page prior to 276, it’s rather difficult to explain, which is why it’s useful to include this data, as it gives a more encompassing representation of his explanation.

Although a graphical representation of this data isn’t really necessary, as the table is pretty easy to understand and visualize, the best way to represent it graphically would be with a pie chart. In doing so, the reader could actually see the differences in library sizes. In the case of library size, it would make sense to represent the data with a pie chart rather than any other graph because it would give the reader a more visual representation of how much a certain size library makes up out of the total libraries. For example, we could see from a pie chart that most libraries have 2-3 volumes as it makes up the largest slice of the pie chart. While this can be seen in the table as well, a pie chart  would give a better visual representation of the data, which is the only reason this graphical representation may be better than the table. The only downside would be that the number of libraries would not be numerically represented. While the percentage is basically representing that number, it was interesting to see the number of libraries that had a certain number of volumes. Because of the ease in interpreting this data table in comparison to the others, the only benefit to supplying a graph would be so the reader could gain a more visual understanding of the data through a pie chart.

The task of evaluating and recommending how the data could be graphically represented was very helpful when thinking about the upcoming paper. I didn’t quite realize how important it is to select the best, most helpful representation of data, no matter if it is in a table or chart. It will definitely make me think harder when it comes to representing my data in my paper. I’ll have to evaluate and analyze my own data to determine if I’m including too much, too little, or just enough and if the way I represent it is the best way to do so. I could see the difficulty in understanding some of the other tables in Gilmore’s chapter, and how that hindered my understanding, so I am definitely feeling more confident when it comes to creating my own table and graphical representations of the data, because I see how important it actually is.

Creating an Inventory, Revealing (or Hiding) a Story

What the data collection process reveals:  At first I thought the data collection process would be relatively simple; I don’t have many books with me at school, mostly those that I need for my classes, so it couldn’t be that difficult to record the information, right? Wrong. As I was gathering each bit of information I found myself wondering what other information could have been collected. We already created a long list, but there’s so much more that could be discovered. While this may be the case, it would be very difficult, and overwhelming, to record every bit of information possible. While it was much easier to focus on the books at school, this process also reveals how important it is for a book historian to acknowledge that some information is left out. When forming a story from a data inventory, a book historian needs to be mindful of the conclusions being drawn or take the risk of telling a false story. This process shows how challenging and important the data collection process is for a book historian. By collecting a sufficient amount of meaningful data, the better and more believable story can be told.

What the data collection process conceals: The data conceals so much about me as a reader. As the data only includes books that I have at school, I feel like many of the details of my reading history and preferences are concealed. I only bring a few leisure books with me, as my focus at school is placed on the books I have to read for school. From this data set, it would seem that I mostly read nonfiction books, but looking at my library at home would show that that is not the case. While collecting information from my entire collection would be daunting, it would give a better representation of myself as a reader; this data only reveals information about me as a student. It becomes even more difficult when analyzing others’ data, as I don’t know them or their reading habits that well. I have to make my best observations from the data I’m given, while still keeping in mind that this data only comes from a set selection of books. When it comes to collecting data, it’s difficult deciding what information is most important to the story. Do you choose and evaluate data based on the story you want to tell or the story you should tell? Something we should all keep in mind when drafting our first essays.

How the process can be changed to tell a different story: The data collection process overall was very eye-opening. While I was aware of the information contained on the opening pages of a book, such as the publication date and city, I didn’t fully comprehend or appreciate the differences that exist among all these details. With this in mind, there are so many different stories that can be told just by looking at the different details a book contains. There’s so much more to a book than what’s written on a page. It would be interesting to see, for example, the different types of fonts that are used and if that reveals anything about the reader. Perhaps a reader only likes larger fonts, or fonts that are easy to read, or maybe it doesn’t reveal anything at all. And what about how worn a book is? Does the wear and tear of a book reveal something about the reader, perhaps one’s favorite books? And on that note, what about collecting data based on a list of a reader’s favorite books, perhaps a list of the top twenty or so? Would it reveal a more meaningful, personal story of the reader? It’s crazy to think about how much a book can reveal, even crazier to consider how a certain combination of data can tell a unique story. There are so many stories that can be told, how it unfolds is simply up to the book historian’s statistical decisions.

The Wheel of Power

While reading this week, an ongoing debate was going on in my head, a debate created by the continuous mention of power that comes with the ability to write and to read. Of course, I knew about the existence of this power beforehand, but had never really stopped to consider which was a more powerful act. Is the ability to read more powerful than the ability to write?

This question circled about my head for a while, sparked by Stephen Colclough’s analysis of Joseph Hunter’s diaries in “Procuring Books and Consuming Texts”. The purpose was to learn more about text acquisition and use, an analysis which was made possible because of Hunter’s diaries in which he made daily recordings of what he was reading and how much he read of a specific piece.  In the first part of the essay, I believed that it is in fact writing that is most powerful, as it enabled Colclough to analyze reading habits and much more. Without this written record, this analysis wouldn’t have been possible. Colclough also mentions that it’s the periodicals Hunter read that persuaded him to read more of a text or author, which would push him to nominate those works or authors to be bought for a subscription library (33). So it would seem that the act of writing is most powerful, as it acts as a method of persuasion and exposure to a work or author. This fact was a common detail throughout Colclough’s essay, that something written in a periodical usually influenced Hunter to buy or, most often, borrow a text. My question, then, seemed to have been answered, or so I thought.

As I got further into the essay and realized how frequently Hunter was influenced by periodicals and other writings, it seemed that it was rather Hunter’s reading of the texts and periodicals that influenced him, not necessarily the writing. Hunter read many texts and periodicals but not all writings appealed to him, making his personal reading more powerful. But this didn’t seem quite right to me, as what’s written on the page will always play a part in a reader’s reading. So how was I to answer this question? I kept going from writing to reading to writing to reading, and then it hit me. While at one point writing may be more powerful than reading, reading will also have a time when it is more influential than writing; it’s like a wheel, a wheel of power.

My experiences and what I’ve read usually impacts what and how I read which, as a result, influences my writing (the very fact that I’m writing a blog based off what I’ve read reflects this). Sure, I’m technically required to write about what I read for this class, but each of us will write about something different. Because of the differences we bring to a piece of writing, our reading of a work will be different, which will affect our writings, which will affect other’s readings, and so on. There’s this never ending wheel that continues to spin, each spoke representing a different part of the whole experience, each spoke having it’s time at the top as the most powerful. This wheel of power has continued throughout history, always changing and always growing. While at one point in history, reading and writing was limited to only a set group of people and forms (i.e aloud versus silent, writing on parchment versus writing electronically), it has been expanding to include more people and more forms. Although these characteristics change, this wheel is always turning.

wheels

This metaphorical wheel of power is always changing, just like forms of reading and writing. From a simple form, on parchment and aloud, to a more intricate, such as electronic sources. The wheel is always changing and turning.

Just Another School or Truly A Separate Discipline?

How is the history of the book different from literary criticism? Is establishing authorial authority in terms of book history really different from establishing authorial authority in literary criticism? Having studied different schools of literary criticism, and theorists including Barthes and Foucault, I have a difficult time accepting history of the book as a discipline separate from that of literary criticism. It’s quite easy to see how much of a correlation exists between literary criticism and the history of the book, especially when it comes to establishing authority for the reader and author, as well as effects authors and books have on society. While it is very interesting to see how some of the basic ideas of literary theories can be taken further with the use of quantitative and historical evidence that the history of the book provides, I’m not entirely convinced of their separation. I may be quick to judge, as I haven’t had much experience with or exposure to the characteristics of the history of the book, but I feel both disciplines have similar intents. The means to achieve an answer or insight may differ, but the overall goals are very similar.

To shed some light on my thought process, and thus hesitance with book history, I want to make use of Michel Foucault’s ideas from “What Is an Author?”. As mentioned in An Introduction to Book History, one of his biggest concerns is with authority of an author. More specifically, Foucault urges readers to question the authority given to an author. Why, for example, is Shakespeare highly regarded in our society? Is it because of the success of his plays during his time or presently? Is it because of its contents, the message it relays? These are some of the broader questions, which he answers by presenting the idea of the “author-function”, that the author is a part of the structure of the work and an indication of the authority of the work. We give these highly regarded books and authors authority just because it has become commonplace, almost a rule in our society to regard Shakespeare as important in literary history. The history of the book does, among other things, work to question authority and seems to answer much of these same questions, but does so in a more quantitative way.

By using material and quantitative aspects of a book to question authority, book history can contribute something different, and at times something even more significant. With Robert Darnton’s communication circuit, for example, one can see how different agents in the writing and publishing process affect the overall experience of a reader, somehow affecting their reception of the work. By analyzing materials and using quantitative methods to discover qualities of a book’s and author’s history, a more factual and statistical conclusion can be made in regards to authority and experience. Simon Eliot realized this need for quantitative analysis when working to determine the success of Walter Besant. He admits in “Very Necessary But Not Quite Sufficient” that without data, by just researching a few other writers and comparing them to Besant’s success, he wouldn’t be able to provide an accurate description of Besant’s success. While he was hesitant at first, the need for something more drove him to quantitative book history. He admits that it is a lot of work, which is suspected with the collection and analyzation of data, but overall achieved a greater significance of Besant’s success than he could in another way (286).

Just like Eliot, I can see the importance book history has as a discipline. With the use of quantitative support, book history can contribute valuable pieces of evidence to an ending conclusion about an author or a book that literary criticism alone could not provide. However, I am still curious and hesitant about the field of book history in general. So, my ending question: is it only the historical and quantitative aspects of the history of the book that separates it from literary criticism? I realize there are differences between both disciplines, but I find it a bit difficult to ignore the fact that overall, many of the schools in each discipline work to determine the authority and impact a text has on society or because of society. It seems although book history and literary criticisms have different ways of getting there, the overall destination is the same. Let me make clear that I am not at all trying to discredit the history of the book, I just am curious and, perhaps, overwhelmed by this new area of study. Maybe others can clear up my hesitation and point out what I’m missing. Perhaps I’m not placing enough importance on the material and quantitative aspects, but I am definitely interested in discovering what really separates the history of the book from schools of literary criticism.