26 March 2010

MCT: David Scott Kastan

I've skipped a few passages in MCT to look at this, and found it interesting, despite its being about textual scholarship, which generally doesn't move me. The essay, "From codex to computer; or, presence of mind", is the fourth chapter in Kastan's Shakespeare and the Book (2001), and looks at the relationship of electronic texts to bound books. It's full of provocative ideas, but I think may miss some points.

The original concern is whether an electronic text is less authentic than a printed one. Kastan points out that particularly in relation to Shakespeare any printed edition is mediated more or less explicitly. Shakespeare himself had no attitude towards print, took no part in getting the plays printed, and so any editorial adjudication on what he meant is dependent on an a priori view of what Shakespeare would have been like to say. (Reading this section, I was reminded of translation practice. There also the question of the writer's intention has importance.)

Kastan quotes T E Hulme as saying that "the covers of a book are responsible for much error" (p 734). By this he means that they artificially isolate the text. Kastan also argues that book-publication gives an artificial fixedness to the published text. And this is a relatively new phenomenon, becoming more prominent as authors' moral rights are more strongly protected.

OK, so what's the comparison? He refers to an online version of King Lear, which I can't immediately find online now. But a screengrab shows that you can see a modern spelling text, the folio and quarto texts, and a facsimile of an early printing (and more) on the screen at the same time. This opens up the play text to all the intertextual links that may be relevant. Well, not all of them. Some selection is being made by an editor even here. And this version of Lear doesn't replace what most people will want, ie an edited text that they can read or speak.

I think the missing point in this is that ebooks generally are more like printed books than this. With ebooks, I think, most people just want a reasonable version of the text. Though the technology does allow hypertextuality, it doesn't enforce it. My suspicion is that it will be a minority taste. I think one effect - either of ebooks or of new developments in print publication (print on demand) is that more obscure works will become more available. But as Kastan accepts, we don't yet know (him in 2001 or me in the space age future).

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