What do books, as material objects, communicate to their readers, and how exactly is this communication achieved? The process of collecting rich, detailed data for the END project—as well as the process of learning how to work with this data—has made evident the exciting analytical possibilities that exist for studying books, for tracing the changes and commonalities within an increasingly larger and more comprehensive corpus of works. However, I am also curious about what new meanings that these individual novels take on in this process. If the novels in the END database first began their lives when they were printed, are they necessarily reborn when they are scanned and digitized? How were these novels sold and distributed in the 1790s, and what questions of accessibility are raised today, in libraries and online? What potential for entertainment and education from the 18th century is carried forward into the present, and what opportunities for scholarship manifest in the horizon, especially in the realm of the digital? The central goal of my project is to gain a general understanding of the changing position of the novel within the interconnecting facets of a) cultural context, and b) methods of production, consumption, and interpretation—both how novels are created and received through time, as well as how they are perceived by different scholarly and public audiences within those times.
I would like to pursue these questions first through historical research, and then through digital and material experimentation. For research, I plan to first study secondary texts in order to form a basis from which I will be able to approach specific primary works. To begin building this foundational understanding, I have drawn from the numerous readings in the END readings Dropbox as starting points; this project was greatly inspired by the readings we completed for week 2 this summer, namely Janine Barchas’ discussion of graphic design and print culture, as well as the various tensions described by Leah Price in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain—for example, the relationships between reader and author; between successive and simultaneous readers; between unity and division; commonality and distinction; etc. I anticipate that Phillip Gaskell’s new introduction to bibliography will also be immensely helpful in preparation for digging deeper into material texts, the history of reading, and precisely what the digital entails as media.
Although my research questions appear to rapidly expand outwards, I would like to center my reading on the material and digital aspects of the novel that are captured in the END database (in this aspect, I also plan to work closely with Genette Gerard’s work on paratexts). These aspects will dictate the experimental stage of my project. Following my interest in the future lives of the books in the Early Novels Database, I hope to present my research on book history and text materiality by creating a dramatically different (but meticulously designed) new version of one of the novels. At this moment, I am entirely unsure whether my research will be better represented materially or digitally; it seems that books today cannot be categorized as purely one or the other, as the process of creating either kind of book inevitably also involves material and digital work. I also do not know what will happen with a book that is self-conscious of its journey through time and its present location in culture and history—or if that is even possible to create while modifying only paratexts and design, rather than text.
Although failure is likely and a more focused approach almost certainly expected after the research phase of my project, I nevertheless plan to OCR, correct, and read the 1784 novel Laura and Augustus, an authentic story: in a series of letters alongside my research into secondary sources. Beyond criteria for length, I selected Laura and Augustus because of its epistolary form and its apparent complexity. I am interested in the epistolary form because current modes of communication have dated hand written letters; furthermore, Laura and Augustus interestingly incorporates letters between characters in Great Britain and the West Indies, adding another cultural dimension (also, it was apparently parodied by Jane Austen when she was 14). By closely examining a primary source while also considering its materiality in design and its historical context moving into the present, I hope to be able to explore not only specific social and technological moments, but also larger questions of meaning in literary and cultural understanding.
Gerard Genette – Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation (full text)
Robert Darnton – First Steps Toward a History of Reading
Peter Stallybrass – Books and Scrolls
Janine Barchas – Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth Century Novel
Philip Gaskell – A New Introduction to Bibliography
Leah Price – How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain
John Smith - The Printer’s Grammar