An Artifact from Xerox-land

[Image Source: The Linotype Line (ca. 1960)]

In Bibliographical Analysis: A Historical Introduction (2009), the great textual critic Thomas Tanselle observes that “books of the past two centuries are particularly resistant to the analysis of the underlying manufacturing procedures because the paper and type to seem to offer few usable clues.” Paper and type quality/style, as Tanselle observes in earlier chapters, represent the most revealing features of books printed in earlier periods due to their particularities, their irregularities. Machine-made paper (which lack, Tanselle laments, tell-tale chain-lines) and the rise of stereotype and offset printing methods (which can be reused in diverse locations and over long stretches of time), meanwhile, have bedeviled the pursuit of signs of “manufacturing procedures” and the bibliographic dating game. Other clues, though, Tanselle notes, “are undoubtedly … present that have not yet been recognized.”

Tanselle’s observations came to mind recently while I was reading Erick Havelock’s The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, published in 1982 by Princeton University Press as part of their “Princeton Series of Collected Essays.” Based on the cover, size, paper, and perhaps a quick flip through its opening pages, readers are unlikely, I suspect, to see this particular codex as at all remarkable. But a few essays deep, I noticed something curious as my eyes shifted their attention from verso to recto:

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Why, I wondered, had the typeface suddenly diminished? Why the switch in the layout of the title? And the dropcap “A”? The previous three articles had begun uniformly in this style:

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So I started flipping around, and found further variations in the size and style of the typeface:

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Now, a certain amount of deviation in style or page layout is normal to the printing process–or, at least, it was back in the days when making extensive changes (especially between editions) meant substituting a plate. But, in this case, the further I explored, the more erratic I found the book’s design. “What happened?” I wondered. That question, I admit, says as much about the reader as it does about the book. My expectations belong to the days of word processing–in which a collection of essays published elsewhere can be homogenized in a few clicks. Meanwhile, the labor of changing typefaces, whether setting by hand or using a casting system such as Linotype, would seem to discourage this sort of mixed design, especially for a scholarly (rather than creative) project.

What gave rise to this disarray? On the page opposite the full title page, unnamed Princeton University Press editor provides an explanation:

PRINCETON SERIES OF COLLECTED ESSAYS

This series was initiated in response to requests from students and teachers who want the best essays of leading scholars available in a convenient format. Each book in this series serves scholarship by gathering in one place previously published articles representing the valuable contribution of a noted authority to his field. The format allows for the addition of a preface or introduction and an index to enhance the collection’s usefulness. Photoreproduction of the essays keeps costs to a minimum and thus makes possible publication in a relatively inexpensive form.

The answer to my question appears in the final sentence: these essays–most of which were originally published in Classics journals or other collections of scholarly essays–have been “photoreproduced.” They’ve been, in other words, photocopied (according to a process not named here) and, in several cases, resized–using, in all likelihood, computer-assisted composition techniques.

This statement wasn’t written with posterity in mind, but it seems to me worth lingering over for a few moments. It provides a window into a period of printing history, about which I’d like to hazard a few “notes” and “queries”:

  1. To Tanselle’s point about evidence: PUP has, of course, kindly explained that they’ve employed a photoreproductive technique in composing the book. But the erratic margins, page layouts, and plethora of fonts all attest to the conditions of its genesis. Here are clues of the “other” sort that Tanselle proposes above. This book bears the traces of period in the book’s history that might have seemed unremarkable to many who lived through it–and now certainly has declined in the popular imagination in light of the rise of the ebook. Greater historical distance, though, might give us fresh eyes with which to appreciate the developments of the decades immediately before ebooks entered the book scene.
  2. One can imagine a graduate student fifty or a hundred years hence deciding to concentrate on the now fascinating transition from “hot” to “cold” typesetting in the mid to late twentieth century. Scholars these days are wrong, this graduate student might claim, about the so-called “ebook revolution;” the rise of digital books had been preceded by fifty (even a hundred?) years of experimentation with light as the medium of reproduction. The ebook is not a radical break, our student might argue, but a continuation of the play with rays and magnets that occurred across the twentieth century. Our graduate student’s dissertation would feature a chapter on the evolution of the Linotype, Monotype, and Xerox corporations and the consequences of their machines/techniques for scholarship and creative writing (perhaps using manuals of the type found here).
  3. This dissertation might bear the title From Lead to Light: The New Science of Textual Reproduction from 1938 to 1991.
  4. That dissertation, in fact, already has a competitor or two (see Ch. 3: “Xerographers of the Mind”).
  5. I (and I suspect a few others) would love to learn if any institutional memory remains at PUP concerning the particular technique/machine(s) was employed in 1982.
  6. Notice how the editor’s statement addresses the question, not at all relevant the state/fate of university presses right now, of why the reader should buy the book rather than just making photocopies of the selected articles. The answer: the book contains a new preface and an index. The reader is buying not merely the essays but authorial and editorial efforts to organize them and to make them searchable. PUP is selling the “co(in)dex.”
  7. Of course, in the age of Xerography, the whole book could/can be photocopied, our graduate student might also argue. The trade of pirated pdfs, then, is nothing new. Indeed, piracy goes hand-in-hand with print. (Print, dear author, has always been picking your pocketbocket!)
  8. Photoreproduction, the statement concludes, has kept “costs to a minimum.” That’s code, I assume, for the reduction of human labor at the keyboard. With the exception of the page numbers and front/back matter, the typesetter has been excluded from the generation of the text on the page. Watch out typist: your job’s going the way of the beater and the punch-cutter.
  9. I’ve been writing as though this kind of book is a strange artifact from “Xerox-land” (to borrow a cutting remark Gore Vidal once made about the scholarly tendency to hoard, unthinkingly, minutiae). But the “photoreproduced” scholarly collection of essays remains alive and well, at least within Humanities departments, in the form of the course packet. Here’s another project for a future book historian: the history of that book genre. Again, it would be fascinating to mine institutional memory at PUP and the Princeton campus to know if the comments about the “value addeds” of the “Collected Essay” series were made with course packets in view.
  10. The productions and institutional memories of university presses offer rich resources for scholars concerned with the history of the material conditions of knowledge–that is to say, ways of organizing, transmitting, and marketing what we (think we) know. Lots of people already recognize that, but it is worth repeating in these days when UPs rightly worry about their futures.

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For making it this far, dear reader, you receive a bonus. Consider this matter from the copyright page of reprints of Havelock’s Preface to Plato:

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I’ve included Havelock’s charming remark about the “leisure” that he was “indirectly afforded” to write this game-changing book purely for your reading pleasure. My real interest is the sentence immediately above it. A statement like this one would give a textual critic like Tanselle fits. In his classic rant essay “Reproduction and Scholarship” (1989), Tanselle asserts the following:

The essential fact one must come back to is that every reproduction is a new document, with characteristics of its own, and no artifact can be a substitute for another artifact. This point is more widely recognized in some fields than in others; as far as verbal compositions are concerned, many people think that the words can easily be transferred from one physical surface to another with no loss, because they do not understand the role of physical evidence in interpreting what communications in fact consist of. Any reproduction, whether clear or indistinct, must be suspect simply because it is not the ultimate source: documentary texts, like all other artifacts, must be examined first-hand if one is serious about approaching them as historical evidence.

Tanselle’s complaint is directed at textual scholarship conducted on facsimiles. That simply won’t do, he argues again and again in the piece. The remarks that I have emboldened also seem relevant to the case at hand. Our friends at Harvard UP believe, or used to believe, in the kind of “no-cost” transfer that (in my view, rightly) alarms Tanselle. Don’t worry reader, the editors suggest, now that we’re using digital technology the content is exactly the same as the earlier printing. Digitization leaves no mark, makes no change, and thus needn’t be dated for bibliographic purposes. But, of course, a Tansellean bibliographer would argue, the artifact has changed. The introduction of that statement suggesting that nothing has changed constitutes a change!

This brings us back around to where this post began–that is, to Tanselle’s lament about the difficulties of performing traditional bibliographic analysis upon modern books. As I suggested in my post on The Silent History, our standard practices of the copyright page–of modern “colophoning,” we might say–can (purposefully or inadvertently) erase the complex movement back and forth between media that marks our current textual condition. Better bibliographic practices are needed within textual artifacts to account for the mixture of media, for the procedures of manufacture and reproduction, through which our words migrate and, in the process, change. Bibliographers of the World, Unite!

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2 Thoughts to “An Artifact from Xerox-land”

  1. Owen McKnight

    The chain continues. I have just purchased Charles Segal’s ‘Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral’, another photoreproduced compilation in the Princeton Series of Collected Essays. This has a copyright date of 1981 … but the back cover reveals that the copy in my hand is a reproduction of a reproduction:

    “The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.”

    1. Rhg

      Owen (if I may), Thanks for this terrific observation. Here’s a specimen that would give Plato fits–a “reproduction of a reproduction,” as you say. Strikingly, PUP makes this statement in order to market the book (contra Platonic bibliographers, a notion that would befuddle the Socrates of the Phaedrus, of course). You’re getting the “original” text using the “latest” techne! There’s also a tacit admission here that in the digital age “out of print” is no longer a meaningful category, or at least one that describes physical realities. Want a title off the backlist? We can scan it and print it in a day!

      I appreciate, though, that PUP has at least included this statement. One wonders how many books that we encounter now have been created in this way, but lack even an admission such a this one. So here’s the question: what does responsible bibliographic practice looks like in the age of pdfs and print-on-demand?

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