Over and over again we hear that the printed book is disappearing; some of the more inflammatory appeals even refer to ‘the death of the book’. Who killed the book? Computers, tablets, e-readers, and other technological tools have become the primary suspects. Indirectly, Amazon and other online retailers have been charged with accessory to murder. It was reported that the cyber world was a hostile environment for the printed book.
It is probably extreme to announce the death of the book. According to some reports, e-book sales have surpassed printed book sales in at least some areas of the market — but the printed book continues to be an important object in the way we communicate, transfer, and safeguard knowledge. The new fields of study that have been developed such as book history, material culture, and so on, have now expanded the book as both object and concept, and they have allowed us to revitalize the book under fresh perspectives.
Online resources have actually been fundamental in the study of books. Ironically, this is precisely because books can be impractical for study when compared to the possibilities opened up by online resources. The thing is, you have to have a book, it takes up space, it cannot be in more than one place at a time. As you read a printed copy of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you can take your laptop and get an online facsimile of the 1818 edition and you can get the 1821 French translation on your tablet, all at the same time. (It might even be possible, one day, to find online copies of all 281 editions listed by Romantic Circles, all at the same time and on the same place, and compare them.)
Because of the vast possibilities opened up by online resources, the study of books and of print culture benefit greatly from these tools. If you want, you can jump to www.manuscriptsonline.org and browse several pre-modern manuscripts from your desk. If you are interested in William Blake, you can go to www.blakearchive.org and you can compare Copy A and Copy C of Jerusalem, despite them being separated by thousands of miles, hosted at the British Museum and at the Yale Center for British Art respectively.
Electronic scholarly editions of literary works have become increasingly popular because they overcome some of the limitations physical books have. Cost, length, space, availability, are all significantly less problematic when dealing with an electronic edition. Stuart Curran’s edition of Frankenstein, for example, has expanded the Frankenstein universe including two different editions, study aids, comparisons, and several other complementary tools for the study of Mary Shelley’s work. Similarly, Jerome McGann has developed, in the Rossetti Archive, a comprehensive multimedia tool for reading and contextualizing the pictorial and literary works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The extensive work by Morris Eaves, Joseph Viscomi, and Robert N. Essick has opened up otherwise unthinkable possibilities for the study of Blake’s works.
The list goes on and on, and scholars, students, and anyone interested in the works of various artists and writers have now access to objects that would have remain in reach to a few privileged individuals. The virtual world has, in fact, allowed for a revitalization of the study of books at both textual and material levels. It has opened a path for the grounding of the book as an object central to literary studies and for bibliographical analysis. On a more historiographical note, the coming of the online book offered a new consciousness of the importance of the printed codex as a cultural object, and online resources have been vital in expanding this new focus on the physical book.
Report by MSc student Alejandro Cathey Cevallos, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.