Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eeee! Books

  I have just read another article predicting the imminent demise of the printed book as we know it. E-books are about to rule the world and publishing houses of the traditional kind will plunge into the abyss of bankruptcy if they don't get a new idea. At the same time, our fair city of Canberra is in the middle of a regular twice a year secondhand book fair which is run to benefit a local charity. It is absolutely huge, and gets bigger every year. Are the buyers stockpiling against the paper book millennium? Are those who donate the books turfing out their libraries in order to replace them with a petite electronic gizmo or two?
  I recently acquired a Kindle; not the most sexy of electronic devices, monochrome with a little screen and lousy book navigation. In fact a tiny girl of about two who keeps coming to investigate it when I'm filling in time at my granddaughter's gym class thinks it is the most useless and boring Nintendo DS she has ever seen. Nevertheless it has its uses. I can download for free very imperfect scans of old books that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, or unobtainable. I can also download recreational reading without filling up my ever decreasing bookshelf space. It's great for reading in bed, because if you fall asleep, it does too, and it doesn't lose its place. It does have the unfortunate feature than when it goes to sleep it displays a grainy old picture of some defunct author. It is quite scary to wake up in the night and find Harriet Beecher Stowe glowering at you over the bedcovers.
   There are some books I think I would always prefer to be in paper form, such as dictionaries, reference material where you might want to have six books open at the same time, or highly illustrated material. I once wrote a review of an electronic dictionary for a journal of online and multimedia matters. The editor said she would never have believed a review of a dictionary could be so funny. A representative of the dictionary wrote an indignant letter with a long list of what he claimed were factual errors or unknowable things, for all of which I was able to prove him incorrect. The journal went belly up, but I don't think that was me. Hey, all I did was speculate on what kind of book you could write with a dictionary that included esoteric Australian slang and a rather peculiar assortment of proper nouns, including the names of French philosophers and nuclear physicists. Then I said I preferred a dictionary with pages.
  I suspect (Nostradamus moment!) that paper books and electronic books will co-exist for a long time yet. Publishing houses will have to get out of their 19th century industrial mode of production and distribution or they will go the way of the dodo. At the moment, it is faster and cheaper to order a paper book online for yourself than have a bookseller do it, and if publishers don't provide electronic services, they are doomed. But for some things, we just like our books.
  The electronic book might just send the book back into a more medieval mode. We have all been taught how naughty it is to write on our industrial type books or to alter things, but with the capacity in electronic media to make annotations on other people's work, or update our own, we might end up with something more like those medieval glossed works with commentary dribbled all around the core text and every version just a bit different. Librarian's nightmare!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Little French Things

  What this website needs is a few little French things Patsy. Saffy, pop down and get us a few little French things sweetie!
  No seriously, Medieval Writing needs a few more French things, so I have started with a script sample from a 14th century letter close of Jean le Bon in French Secretary cursive script. I have not done the paleography exercise yet, but will do it soon as it is just a wee little document. Much more fun than sorting out notes and backing up files.
  I have just noted that the Dirty Books article mentioned a couple of posts ago has had its illustrations restored, in a natty format so they zoom out of the page at you when you click on them, so you can see the grubby finger marks, as well as the beautiful manuscripts that they were left on.
  Oh, and about the mulberry tree. Well I will get back to that, but I'm afraid that manuscript has a rather similar effect on me as the consumption of gross excesses of mulberries. I will endeavour to finish the exercise though, imperfect as it may be. I just have a bit of a problem with all that horticultural and gynaecological imagery all mixed together.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Paleographical Passion and Archivist Angst

  Much of the basic groundwork in paleography and in the study of archives was done a long time ago. That is not to say that good work is not still going on, but to get back to the roots of it, it is necessary to ferret out some rare old books. That has had me ratting around in The Internet Archive and printing out great tomes at painful speed, or more recently downloading bad scans of imperfect copies of old books to my Kindle. It all has deficiencies, but better than not being able to get your hands on things at all.
  A noticeable feature of academic writing of earlier times is that authors were allowed to express their passion, and by crikey did they get passionate about their subjects. The following is a series of quotes from Hubert Hall 1908 Studies in English Official Historical Documents Cambridge University Press. This is a working guide to the English Public Records, with a bit of concise history about the various classes of records and what happened to them over the centuries. Pretty dry stuff, you might think, but the following decontexted grabs express some of his feeling about how the records were treated during the 18th and 19th centuries:
  “... we have to deplore almost incalculable losses through premature decay and systematic abstractions. These losses are chiefly due to the deliberate neglect of later official custodians and to the still more wanton refusal of the parliaments and ministries of the 18th and even the 19th century to adopt the simplest precautions ofr their safekeeping.”
  “...the anxiety displayed by enlightened antiquaries to save some specimens of historical evidence from these putrid heaps of parchment ...”
  “By dint of groping on his hands and knees amidst the dust and corruption of the low-roofed cock-lofts of the Exchequer treasuries  ....”
  “Almost within living memory the public Records have been sold for glue by the soldiers and workmen employed to remove them from one pestilential vermin-haunted den to another...”
  “... after a further period of official procrastination, illumined by various destructive fires, the Records are still found in festering heaps...”
  “... the officials who should have been engaged in their jealous preservation were employed as sub-commissioners in preparing worthless texts, imperfect calendars, and misleading indexes...”
  Hubert Hall would no doubt be much delighted with the way in which the Public Records are now housed, and made available for study; another subject on which he expresses strong opinions. He would also, no doubt, be pleased that since his time local record offices have acquired back vast numbers of records that were in private hands, another area that he laments. Not much to be done about the glue or the rats though.
  Perhaps the main point is that modern writings tend to be laden with jargon and complex conceptual baggage, and nobody want to be caught out having an emotionally charged opinion about such matters. After all, Hubert doesn't give the impression that archivists were the dull sort of people of their (probably unfairly ascribed) reputation. We can never convince governments about the importance of educational matters if we just jabber in tongues among ourselves, and never let rip with our angst and passion.