An Optimistic Future (?)

As we’ve learned more and more about book history in class, a question that has mounted within me has been: what will book history be like when scholars years from now are studying us? We’ve studied texts that track library catalogues, diaries, trading records…but what will happen now that all of that has become digitized or fallen out of practice? Will it be easier to compound and analyze information due to digitized resources or will it be more difficult when perhaps smaller slivers of historical evidence become buried in the overwhelming information that the internet has to offer?

I think maybe a little bit of both.

Considering what we’ve read these past few days about digital texts and how we as readers consume them, I would have to believe that book history itself will change immensely simply for the fact that books themselves will change. There have been many arguments about whether the internet makes us smarter or dumber, but the undeniable truth is that it changes us as a society. Some of us now read in an “F” pattern, some hyper-read or use the “control-F” function to quickly find the desired information and ignore the rest. This all has me thinking back to the article that we read about the phenomenology of reading. Those processes will probably change as well – and might have already – and will make it necessary for that field of book history to alter its course.

At any rate, I’m going to play on the optimistic side when thinking about the future of book history; with more digital texts available and more ways to compile large-scale data, the possibilities will be endless for anybody – even amateurs like me! And let’s face it: if the world continues along the road of digitizing information, we can’t stop it. But I think it will be worth it.

Unless Apple and Google take over and everything ends. Then, God speed.

Response to “A Republican Literature…”

Weekly readings seem to be getting more daunting knowing that I will soon be writing my own similar style of essay. More and more I am beginning to feel that, while all of these examples are GREAT examples, they’re so far out of my range of capabilities that it’s almost overwhelming. David Nord’s impressive essay A Republican Literature: A Study of Magazine Reading and Readers in Late Eighteenth-Century New York is no exception. Nonetheless, I was able to appreciate the great amount of thought that Nord put into his work and learn a few things that I could muster through my own writing.

One of the great things about this piece is that Nord draws all of his data from one year – 1790. While the amount of information that comes out of just one year is plentiful, I admire that he stuck to a small time frame; I’m sure it contributed to the ease of his research and I’m quite confident that it contributed to the ease with which I was able to read and understand the data. I’m also a huge fan of his tables – Nord really knows how to organize, and he sure does give us a lot of tables to look at: there’s a table about occupations of subscribers (Nord 48), one for the top ten occupations of artisan subscribers (50), one for the geographical locations of artisan subscribers (51), and two for the subject matters of the magazines (53). Personally, I’d say Nord covered his bases well. Hopefully by the time I finish the final draft of my own essay, I can be confident that I, like Nord, left no stones unturned.

The other major thing I appreciated about Nord’s writing that I will take as an example in my own work is his extensive explanation of the setting which defined the word “Republican.” One of the first questions a reader might ask is: just what constitutes a “Republican Literature?” Luckily, Nord takes the first few pages to explain that “Historians still disagree, rather warmly, over what Americans in the late eighteenth century meant when they talked about republicanism” (43) and goes on to further address a few of the ways that the word “republican” has been interpreted. One would be mistaken to assume that the word had the same meaning then as it does now, and one would also be mistaken in ignoring the ambiguity of the word even in modern terms; Nord helps us become intelligent readers by keeping us from committing either of those mistakes. This to me is a great lesson on context, without which the essay would be confusing and less meaningful.

In all, I think Nord’s study has a lot of qualities that even a beginning-level writer like myself can try to imitate. His writing was disciplined in its focus on the magazine while it could so easily stray from the data and attempt to analyze the relationship between the magazine and the culture more critically. Let it be a lesson for all of us that we don’t necessarily need to make overly-broad cultural assertions in order to create a meaningful argument. 

 

 

Nord, David. “A Republican Literature: A Study of Magazine Reading and Readers in Late Eighteen-Century New York.” John Hopkins University Press. American Quarterly 40.1 (1988): 42-64.

To Research Book History, Start with the History

My research in the following weeks will be directed toward finding out more about the connection between women’s rights in Victorian England and the literature of the time period. Although I have yet to narrow my focus, a little poking around online made me interested in the idea of zeroing in on one women’s suffrage leader and examining what they read.

 

During my time online, I stumbled across this website:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/women.htm

 

I found it helpful because it presents a list of outspoken women’s suffragists in British history, as well as suffrage groups, journals, and more information about historical female lifestyles. Probing through the list of women, I recognized Virginia Woolf and decided to investigate a little further. The site provides a lengthy biography with tons of information (along with a huge and possibly helpful list of primary resources). From this one website, I was able to read about Woolf’s childhood, her growing interest in feminism and her work with concerning the push for suffrage. What interests me most about this figure is the fact that she was a political activist, a reader, and a (now) famous writer – all in one.

 

The positive aspects of this resource – its wealth of information on a variety of people, its bibliographies and connections to other sources, its general overview of the time period – are positive more so in the sense that it provided a gateway to get me thinking more about what narrow topic I wanted to dive into. I can’t yet say if that topic will be someone like Virginia Woolf, and if so, if I will be researching the publishing and readership of Woolf’s writings or what Woolf herself engaged with reading that may have influenced her political and literary activities. There is also the option of looking into who was publishing the suffrage journals to learn more about what they read as well, or maybe the reading habits of whoever was organizing one of the major suffrage groups – all of these names are accounted for on this website. This resource has exposed for me a range of possibilities, the difficult part lies in picking one…

 

In that regard, this website is little more than a starting point to gain a foothold and general overview of information; it puts the “history” in “book history.” I’m likely to use a resource like the Reading Experience Database to gather more direct information – for instance, who was reading Virginia Woolf, and what was Woolf herself reading? (I actually looked it up, and there are a good number of entries that are evidence of her reading habits.)

 

In a perfect world, research projects would be made easy with online material that answer all of our questions in one place (hah – I wish!) For now, I’m pretty satisfied that I found a site that could answer just a few of my questions and lead me to ask even more. 

Research Project Proposal

For this research project, I will be studying women fiction authors of 19th century England because I want to find out how they gained popularity in order to help my reader understand that the presence of women in literature was a positive force for the feminist movement.

Throughout the duration of my research experience, I hope to learn more about the publishing and circulation of female writing in Europe during this time period. I also expect to notice some correlations between the growing acceptance and popularity of female authors and the notable political and social achievements of the feminist movement. Hopefully, my research will help clarify the ways in which women in history have utilized fiction as a means for shaping a better future and will add credibility to fictional literature as an agent of social change.

The Victorian Era of England can be characterized by its ideas of “a kind of femininity which was centered on the family, motherhood and respectability” and the expectation that women remain domestic and passively accepting of the lack of political and social equality in existence. However, it was also the time in which women began to demand this equality (Abrams). Famous books published by females during this time period include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – which was printed under the pseudonym “Currer Bell” (Tompkins) – and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Since Victorian England saw the growing acceptance of women outside of the domestic sphere as well as the production of many of the classic works of female fiction with which we are all familiar, it is a particularly interesting time period to address in this research project. After all, a time period so fruitful with the struggles of social change is essential to my focus if I am to yield results that support my argument. While 20th century Britain is most famously recognized as the time period that gave rise to the major feminist movement (Murray), the 19th century was a time of growing discontent that was especially apparent in some of the fiction of the time.

For my research methods, I will draw on sources from internet and library databases as well as bibliographies from websites or journals. Some different forms of research documents that might be helpful could be large accounts of 19th century British publishing, historical review records of famous female literature, and diaries (if available). Journals or essays related to 19th century book history in England would probably yield research ideas as well from their bibliographies.

Some interesting looking online materials that I have found so far include the following:

–        Taken from the Reading Experience Database, this is a look at the response of the reader and critics of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There are links within the article that attach directly to the RED.

–        A description of an exhibit from Duke University which is about 19th Century British women writers and includes some popular authors, a timeline of events, and other interesting content. What I’m most interested from this site is the bibliography it provides, which might prove to be a valuable resource.

–        I’m planning on using our own school’s library catalogue, but I also happened upon this one (again from Duke) while I was exploring the previous link. I think it might be useful because there are is a great number of full online texts available from here.

–        The following link has to do with 19th century English periodicals, which I thought might warrant some exploration to see if I could find book reviews or feminist periodicals.

–        This next database covers only from 1800-1829, but, as it describes, it is a compilation of data involving production, circulation, and reception of British fiction.

Timelines aren’t my strong suit, but if I’d attempt a guess, I would expect to incrementally work on the research aspect of this essay up until week 13. By the beginning of that week, I expect to be in a position where I have found a great deal of resources, have narrowed down those resources into what I feel is most important  towards my argument, and am confident that I have enough material to begin writing.

The weekend before week 13 (3/28/14-3/30/14) will be spent condensing my chosen data into graphs, tables, and other organizational tools for the data that I plan to represent in my essay. Afterwards, I will have until Tuesday, April 8 to complete the 8-10 pages of my essay and submit my rough draft.

 

References:

Abrams, Lynn. “History Trails: Victorian Britain.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

<http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.sh

tml>

Murray, Jenni. “20th Century Britain: The Woman’s Hour.” BBC News. BBC, 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 14 Mar.

2014. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/jmurray_01.shtml&gt;

Tompkins, Joyce. “Charlotte Bronte (British Author).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia

Britannica, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/80962/Charlotte-Bronte> 

Data Visualization: Fun Design without Distortion

Although charts and tables have a reputation for providing the most accurate representations of data, I think data visualizations have a lot to offer. Tufte warns us of the many all-to-easy ways we can go wrong and commit graphical fraud, which seems to be an especially easy trap to fall into when using data visualizations. There is definitely a standard that needs to be met in order for me to feel trusting of a graphic, but that stands true for any table or chart as well. Take this graphic for instance:

 Image

I pulled this image from a website called visual.ly, which invites anyone to use their tools to create their own data visualizations. The website intrigued me because I thought it might show how people who may not be as well-versed in data representations as Tufte or Booth go about creating graphics, and to what extent they apply Tufte’s ideas of “graphical integrity.”

At first glance, this image struck me as amusing. After a little consideration, I thought it was creative more than anything else. I commend the author of this graphic for making his/her numerical and descriptive data about alcohol into a “science” by formatting it as the periodic table, presenting me the facts of the data in an interesting and fun way while still, for the most part, encouraging me to take it seriously. 

What strikes me most, however, is the ease at which the exact same information could be put into a table (what we might think of as a “normal” table, at least, being as it’s already in a periodic table). The data – including the percent of alcohol in each drink, the flavor, and year of creation – is not skewed, as far as I can tell, by the manner in which it is presented, which is exactly what Tufte warns against. I considered that “The Periodic Table of Alcohol” might be implying some sort of hierarchy within the drinks that isn’t meant to be there, but what I found was that there WAS a hierarchy that was implied and it WAS meant to be there. Just as the Periodic Table of Elements is arranged within different groups according to atomic mass (don’t blame me if I’m wrong – science isn’t my forte), so too is this parody of the Periodic Table arranged within groups (Vodka, Beer, Wine…) according to alcohol content. So, while a little basic knowledge of the Periodic Table of Elements is helpful in understanding the format of this table, it isn’t mandatory.

All in all, I think this particular data visualization is committing none of the sins written about by Tufte. If anything, it is using graphic design to organize information in an intriguing way that follows a pattern of arrangement that wouldn’t have the same effect in any regular table. It is all of the fun design, accurate data, and clarity without any of the distortion. 

From Table to Graph

In William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life, tables and graphs are used to make sense of quantified data in a way that is intended to supplement Gilmore’s claims concerning the reading habits of rural American families from 1787 to 1830. One table in particular, Table 8-2, stood out to me because of a few characteristics: it is simple, easy to understand, and self-contained. 

Image

As Jane Miller wrote, effective tables are self-contained and well-labeled “so your audience can understand the information without reference to the text” [1], and I believe this is exactly what Gilmore accomplishes. The table’s header is compact without being too brief and includes a geographic location and time period. The columns are titled with a description and units (when applicable) and are not overly-crowded by lines or extraneous data. He includes a line for a total count at the bottom, which is a helpful feature so that readers can get a feeling for how many libraries are being accounted for. In his explanation, Gilmore groups different parts of the table together in order to make his point. For example, he writes “It is very surprising…that more than a tenth (11 percent) of all libraries contained more than twenty-five volumes…” It was easy for me, as a reader, to look at the table and notice that most of the libraries had only 1-5 books; however, Gilmore’s analysis drove my attention to what is apparently a more surprising observation. In this way, the table is easy to understand, but it is Gilmore’s written analysis that provides the bulk of information about what readers should be paying attention to. 

If Gilmore were to demonstrate this data in a graph rather than in a table, I find that there are two possible ways he could go about doing it. The choice of what type of graph to use, of course, depends upon the purpose of what the information will convey. Being as the data is not representative of a trend over time, a line graph is out of the question. A bar or pie chart would be a better method. For example, a bar chart might be used to show how many libraries have a certain number of books (i.e. 90 libraries have only 1 book), with the y-axis measuring the number of libraries and the x-axis divided into increments of 1 volume, 2-3 volumes, 4-5 volumes, and so forth. This, however, would eliminate the “Percent of All Libraries” information that the table provides which Gilmore uses in his analysis. It is possible to label each of the “bars” of the graph according to the percentage that they represent, as long as it doesn’t overcrowd the graph and confuse the data. This, however, might not be as helpful as a pie chart, which could create a visual of, for example, the 90 libraries that have 1 book compared to what all of the other 306 libraries have. 

In this particular case, I am convinced of the effectiveness of Gilmore’s original table to the point where I probably would not change to a graphical representation at all. His table is clean and easy to understand; if after experimentation with a bar or pie graph this same simple display of data is not achieved, I would be inclined to keep the table instead. 

 

[1] Miller 1840 (ebook edition) 

Book Collecting Tells Stories, Too

Cataloging the books in my possession has never really occurred to me before as a method for drawing conclusions about myself. However, the truth is that a lot of who I am rests in how I spend my time – It just so happens that much of my time is spent reading.

What was revealed:

Above all, the process of data collection proved to be frustrating at times. Each book that I picked up to catalog posed different challenges. E-books oftentimes did not list publishing dates or cities, Bibles can neither be considered fiction nor nonfiction (getting into that discussion would be opening a completely different can of worms), and my dictionary naturally had no single author. Looking back, exasperation accounted for much of my emotion during the experience.

Additionally, I was surprised to find that I was in possession of more books than I had originally thought. My collection of e-books is compact within an e-reader, which originally gave me the impression that I had relatively few books in my possession. As well as this, I found myself having to uncover books from unintentional hiding places, such as the back of my drawer or underneath a stack of notebooks. This to me represented the vague notion of what it means to be a book historian: revealing the hiding places of books that had long since been forgotten.

What was concealed:

As many of us have probably noticed, our book collections here at school are not necessarily a good representation of our entire book history. In a way, this exercise concealed my true reading habits by limiting the pool of books from which to collect data to those that I have here at school.

For each book I cataloged, I found myself trying to recall whether or not I had enjoyed the experience of reading it. This undocumented recollection as to my memory of reading each text made me realize a possible shortcoming of book history: a book’s existence within my collection does not suggest that I wish it to be there. True, my possession of each text does have meaning, but how significant is that meaning if I had a poor experience with the book? Does this shortcoming really matter in the long run?

How might it be changed to tell a different story?

Changing the criteria that I used to catalog my books would serve to complicate my findings in an interesting way and change the story that could be told from my data. For example, my curiosity during the cataloging process influenced me to add additional columns to my data spreadsheet to answer some of my questions: Is there a correlation between my identity as a female and the genders of the authors that I choose to read? How many of the books in my collection have bookmarks to indicate the fact that they have been temporarily abandoned? How many of my books were bought with the intention of my reading them while never actually fulfilling that intent? I began to alter my cataloging criteria in such ways that, if nothing else, would tell me even more interesting things about myself as a reader. 

Phenomenological Theory: Explanations for Nameless Phenomena

Wolfgang Iser’s text The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach offers insightful interpretations as to how we as readers respond to a literary work. Just as a deer caught in the headlights might understand the car to be approaching at a rate that renders the deer incapable of reaction, so too do readers fall victim to an author’s mechanisms. If a literary work is successful, the text is the car, and, in a sense, we readers are the deer, able to comprehend the totality of our experience only after the fact.

“That gives [the reader] the chance to have an experience in the way George Bernard Shaw once described it: ‘You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something’” [1].

This feeling of loss encapsulated in Shaw’s quote is an invaluable experience for a reader, regardless of how undesirable it may seem. In retrospect, this describes exactly how I have felt upon reaching the last word of a great novel. That raises the questions: why is this so and how does it happen?

Iser’s descriptions interpret this concept quite well, elucidating two main losses that a reader may experience: that of his/her own sense of present time, and that of his/her identity. Through the act of experiencing literature, a reader becomes entangled and loses sense of reality; “the text becomes his ‘present’ whilst his own ideas fade into the ‘past’” [2]. Iser describes this phenomenon not just as helpful, but as essential to a reader’s understanding of the text. If the text is a success, the reader cannot help but to become fully engrossed to the point where his/her sense of time and presence within it have evaporated. Indeed, authors may go about invoking this reaction in an audience by allowing the reader to fill in the gaps in his/her own way [3], thereby imparting a new perspective into the text. The impact that a reader might experience fully depends upon the extent to which he/she fills in those gaps [4]. Therefore, the process by which a reader may lose him/herself depends upon the author’s willingness to leave gaps in the text and the reader’s commitment to filling them.

Additionally, Iser writes that the unique act of reading causes a loss of identity in a reader and the possibility for absorption of experiences that are not one’s own [5]. Reading allows us to enter “another mental world” in which we pronounce “I” when we do not mean ourselves [6]. Because of this, we as readers can be brought to tears as a tragedy in a novel unfolds or feel personally affronted when characters clash. Iser interprets this phenomenon as “the point at which author and reader converge” which enables a reader to “bring to life the ideas formulated by the author,” and can only be successful under the conditions that the author’s biography and the reader’s “individual disposition” be shut out of the text [7]. If all of this is successful, the author’s own thoughts become the thoughts of the reader, and the reader may experience the feeling of loss described in Shaw’s quote.

While it may seem trivial to spend time gathering intelligence on the subject of reading, understanding the nature of the effects a text can have on a reader may allow us to interpret the importance of literature as a whole. Through understanding the individual act of reading, we may begin to answer questions as to why the study of book history is so important.  

 

[1]: 296          [4]: 287

[2]: 295          [5], [6]: 297

[3]: 285          [7]: 298

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.