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Lou Burnard, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, and John Unsworth, eds. Electronic Textual Editing.

Lou Burnard, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, and John Unsworth, eds. Electronic Textual Editing. New York: Modern Language Association, 2006. vii+419 (and compact disk). $45.00 cloth; $28.00 paper.

In the dim, dark past there was, as some of you may remember, Project OCCULT; that is, "The Ordered Collation of Unprepared Literary Text." The year was 1970 and the programming to do this miraculous thing was in SNOBOL 4. In the more than thirty-five years since then I have attended and/or spoken at more panels and conferences on the subject of computers and textual editing than I can number, even with a computer, but still the golden time of computers producing definitive editions, perfect in every respect, has not arrived. What did happen, as we all know is that computers got faster with larger memories and smaller size at a speed which meant that a computer was out of date as you unpacked it from its shipping box. And the fact that you were unpacking it from its shipping box was new too, since before the middle 1980s computing was almost entirely mainframe computing. When, in 1983, I turned on my spanking-new KayproII it proudly announced on its monochrome screen, "64k internal memory." Today I can buy a laptop with 1 gigabyte of internal memory and a high definition color monitor for about a third of what that KayproII cost. And then there is the WorldWideWeb and drag-and-drop and wireless connectivity and on and on. The result of all this speed, capacity, and economy we all know--any fool can put up a text on the WWW and any fool usually does. If the expansion of printing during the nineteenth century swamped us with text, the electronic revolution has raised the textual water level to several feet over our head.

Jerome McGann and Dino Buzzetti say in the book under review:
 Scholarly editing is the source and end and test of every type of
 investigative and interpretational activity that critical minds may
 choose to undertake. Well understood by scholars until fairly
 recently, the foundational status of editorial work is now much less
 surely perceived. Hermeneuts of every kind regularly regard such
 work, in Rene Wellek's notoriously misguided description, as
 "preliminary operations" in literary studies. Odd though it may
 seem, that view is widely shared.... (54)


If this is the case, and I believe it is, then the electronic revolution has had the effect of obliterating nearly a century of hard, careful, thoughtful textual endeavor. "Hermeneuts," and I assume they make a large percentage of the readers of this journal, have always been more inclined to perform their work from the handiest book, no matter the origins of its texts, than to undertake the labor of seeking out and using a scholarly edition, but the electronic revolution now spares the "Hermeneut" even the effort of getting up to get the book off the shelf a few feet away. This situation has been exacerbated because although from at least the 1960s most graduate programs in the humanities, and especially in English, required students, particularly Ph.D. students, to take a course in research methods which typically introduced the students to physical bibliography and textual criticism, from the mid-1990s these courses have been cut from the curriculum as required courses and sometimes cut entirely. This means that our younger, and a few of our older, "Hermeneuts" must now stand in the frigid blast of the electronic revolution without any proper protective garments. Their abilities to judge the fitness for their purposes of the edition of the primary work which is in their hands or on their screens will be impaired, and unless or until the profession decides that this is no way to prepare "Hermeneuts" for their critical work and re-establishes courses which educate them in such matters, any number of books like the one under review, from the MLA or similar organizations, will not make any headway in producing order out of chaos.

This volume from the MLA will probably not do much directly to solve this problem but it is an attempt to speak at least to scholarly editors and tell them how the fruits of their labors can find their way into electronic form. Unfortunately, it is also the vehicle for publishing the updated "Guidelines" of the MLA's Committee on Scholarly Editions (CSE, formerly the Committee on the Editions of American Authors [CEAA], the MLA body which approves scholarly editions as being properly done), and that means that two scholarly tasks--disseminating the rules and regulations for getting an edition approved by the CSE and publishing a series of essays on ways of doing scholarly editions electronically-are lumped together and will probably be, therefore, mutually ignored (e.g., nowhere in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication-Data for this book is the "Guidelines" mentioned and so it is effectively lost in subject searches of online library catalogs, though it may turn up in keyword searches). There is no indication that the MLA intends to publish the "Guidelines" separately so that any current or prospective editor and any "Hermeneut" will have to seek them out by finding this book.

Aside from the 'Guidelines," the book contains twenty-four essays on various aspects of electronic scholarly editing as well as a "Foreword" by G. Thomas Tanselle. This "Foreword" is to be recommended to all those who use and who produce scholarly editions. It is clear, traditional, and sets forth what we mean when we use the term. The other essays are of varying degrees of technicality and most of them will be of interest only to those undertaking the production of an electronic or electronic/print edition (e.g., M. J. Driscoll's "Levels of Transcription," 254-61 ), but some of the essays should be read not only by editors but by the users of scholarly editions, the "Hermeneuts." For far too long readers of scholarly editions and makers of scholarly editions have not had much in the way of conversation, and this book might be the occasion for starting such a conversation. For instance, there is a tendency for those preparing electronic editions to include so much primary material in their finished work that they overwhelm the user and almost give up the task of editing entirely. Are scholarly editors to become, in the seemingly boundless electronic environment, merely collectors? Do users want the editor, based on sound and explained principles, to choose whether Hamlet's flesh was too "solid," "sallied," or "sullied," or do they merely want to have digital images of all three readings presented to them so they can make up their own minds? How simple, or how complex, should the textual apparatus be and should everyone learn how to read this rather simple textual note:

120. flesh: ] ~, F3, POPE-JOHN, CAP-DYCE3, OXFI-ARD2, BEVI; Flesh, F4, ROWE; ~^ COL4, PELI, EVNS+

Non-editors might want to especially read Peter Robinson's "The Canterbury Tales and Other Medieval Texts," 74-91 and Hans Walter Gabler's "Moving a Print-Based Editorial Project into Electronic Form," 339-45, to get a feeling for where electronic is going and where it has been.

Gabler quite sensibly says,
 The editor's responsible establishment and provision of an edited
 text in a comprehensive editorial enterprise define an electronic
 edition, just as they have defined every traditional edition in
 print. It is the incorporation of an edited text that distinguishes
 the electronic, or computer, edition from archives, libraries, or
 similar electronic text and document repositories. (344)


One would have thought that one could always tell a scholarly edition from a library building, even by starlight, but the plans for some electronic projects envisaged in some of the essays in this volume might make one wonder. For example, David Gants says, speaking about the new print/electronic Cambridge edition of Ben Jonson and quoting Jerome McGann as well:
 [W]e will embrace emerging technologies to distribute editorial
 power among the users, to provide them "the means for establishing
 an indefinite number of 'centers,' and for the expanding their
 number as well as altering their relationships. One [will be]
 encouraged not so much to find as to make order--and then to make
 it again and again, as established orderings expose their
 limits." (124)


The "Hermeneut" who has not been educated, even to an introductory level, in textual criticism, or who thinks and says, as many do, that textual criticism is a synonym for literary criticism or even merely the reading of texts, will not, I think, make order from such vast and constantly expanding resources but will, rather, make chaos. From the viewpoint of the "Hermeneut" more may actually be less.

William Proctor Williams

University of Akron
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Author:Williams, William Proctor
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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