On Anthology

E-advertisements for new anthologies (or other course texts) usually go straight to the trash bin. But I received one recently that included a passage that caught my eye (and stayed my hand as I moved to delete it) in which the editor Don LePan discussed the process of assembling the team behind an anthology:

When we began to search for academics willing to join our group of general editors for the anthology, we were certainly looking for outstanding scholars. But we were also looking for scholars who we knew to be “good people” more generally—people open to a broad range of perspectives, people keen to work on a cooperative basis, people in the habit of treating those less distinguished than themselves with a generous as well as a courteous spirit. We have tried to follow similar principles in searching for junior scholars to assist in the work of preparing texts, notes, and introductions; copy editors and proofreaders; and designers and typesetters. And we’ve been fortunate on all counts: the ever-expanding group of people who have made a significant contribution to the anthology is truly made up of good people in every sense of the word. To my mind, the anthology’s success is attributable to that fact just as much as it is to the many ways in which its approach is distinctive.

For moderns, the practice and genre of anthology are inescapably political: as soon as one begins collecting and selecting, the problem of representation arises. Anthologies are also bound up with (and threatened by) the digital transformation of the textbook, of course. LePan reminds us that anthology-making in our age is also an enormous collaborative exercise, which hinges, in turn, on the ability of scholars and publishing-house-members to work together. Although not framed in quite the terms that a moral philosopher might use, LePan issued a reminder (to me at least) that anthology-making has its virtues.

LePan’s remarks struck a chord because I’ve been mulling lately the possible return of a pedagogical experiment with practices of anthology and commentary that I conducted a few semesters ago using Commentpress. I had undertaken that experiment in order to help students to think about the fundamental activities of criticism as well as to reflect on how media (and their traditional operating procedures) facilitate or inhibit them. (John Unsworth’s “scholarly primitives” was very much on my mind at the time.) I wrote reflections on the two practices for the course blog, and I’ve decide to recycle them on Booktrades in case others have thoughts/suggestions. The anthology piece (or, at least, most of it) appears below. The commentary reflection will appear in good time. As I worked these pieces, the ethical nature of both activities quickly asserted themselves. Our exchanges over the course of the semester, in turn, added new dimensions to this concern. The two reflections will, I’ve realized, need to be updated in many respects, but the ethical dimension seems to me at least the most urgent.



 –Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

As the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson reveals here, our “anthology” has Greek roots. The entry in Johnson’s dictionary indeed gives priority to the straightforward translation of the Greek: an anthology is a collection of flowers, a bouquet. But flower-gathering already seemed to many in Antiquity an apt metaphor for the practice of selecting and arranging passages across one’s reading–the third sense listed in Johnson’s entry. St. Jerome, who will be our “patron saint” in the upcoming discussion of commentary, is exemplary here as well. In his letter to Vigilantius, Jerome describes his “task and study” as follows: he reads “many authors to cull different flowers from as many as possible.” (The scholar H.D.F. Sparks, moreover, connects Jerome’s wide reading to his practice of commentary: “A commentary if it is to be satisfactory, should always repeat the opinions of many, and say, [as Jerome does in Against Rufinius] ‘Some explain this passage in this way, other interpret in that.”)

As with commentary, we are immediately confronted with a dilemma in relation to anthology as a genre. Should any document that involves the collection of numerous passages from other works count as an anthology? Given how many critical and creative kinds of writing encourage extensive quotation, such a definition of anthology would encompass innumerable potential works and thereby likely prove useless. Scholars have suggested that the genre of anthology ought to be defined by the priority it assigns to the words garnered from other works. Here’s Paul Griffith’s definition from his book Religious Reading:

Formally speaking, an anthology is a work all (or almost all) of whose words are taken from another work or works; it contains a number (typically quite a large number) of extracts or excerpts, each of which has been taken verbatim (or almost so) from some other work; and it uses some device to mark the boundaries of these excerpts.

Perhaps Griffiths errs slightly, though, in so emphasizing the ratio of excerpted to other words. If one spends only a few minutes with the primary pedagogical anthologies of literary studies (or religious studies for that matter) of, say, the last sixty years, one will see immediately that the number of “secondary” words–those words that comprise the anthology’s introduction, section/author introductions, glosses, footnotes, and appendices–approaches (and may even exceed) the number of words in the “primary” works that the anthology selects. (Consider, too, the phenomenon of the “study bible,” which is laden with introductory matter, commentary, appendices, etc.)

In the case of many modern literary anthologies, many elements of the book’s design–including matters such as its management of typefaces, spacing, the positioning of elements on the page, and the orientation provided by the table of contents–nonetheless contribute to the prioritizing of the excerpts. This last issue will be equally important to our thinking about the process of media translation–as the bookish genre of anthology migrates into digital domains.


One of anthology’s obvious attractions–and purposes for readers–is that it saves time and likely money, since anthologies gather matter strewn about the garden of letters and assemble it in one (hopefully less expensive) place. In the twentieth century, anthologies offered a technique for sharing important works difficult for some or many readers to access–for example, works from earlier centuries that had fallen out of print or had only been printed in limited supply. Scholars who roamed large university libraries could thus harvest hard-to-find flowers for a broader audience.

The preface to the ninth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature begins with the issue of dissemination:

A great anthology of English literature is a compact library for life. Its goal is to bring together works of enduing value and to make them accessible, comprehensible, and pleasurable to a wide range of readers. […] If it succeeds, if it manages to give its readers access to many of the most remarkable works written in English during centuries of restless creative effort, then it furthers a worthwhile democratic cause, that of openness. What might have been a closed pleasure ground, jealously guarded as the preserve of a privileged elite, becomes open to all.

Notice here the emphasis on opening. The work of an anthology is not only to make available literary works that might be challenging for the reader to compile on his or her own (whether because the material is unknown or physically unavailable) but also to make it possible to understand them (through the introduction of the critical “apparatus” of glosses, introductory notes, footnotes, etc.). It is this combination of access and accessibility that underwrites the claim of the editor, Stephen Greenblatt, about the anthology’s democratizing function.

A second purpose of the genre has been well described by the critic Jeffrey Di Leo. Di Leo defines anthology as “a collection of connected or interrelated writings that center around a topic,” including “themes, disciplines, persons, and historical periods” (“Analyzing Anthologies,” On Anthologies). Anthologies, such a definition emphasizes, don’t gather just anything but are selective; and the process of selection, in turn, represents a series of arguments not only about the various chosen elements (that they relate to the topic) and their relation to another but also about the topic itself. The metaphor of a bouquet is again helpful: just as the various elements of a bouquet are, ideally at least, chosen as part of a larger aesthetic vision, so too are the elements of an anthology reflective of the compiler’s understanding of the central topic.

As Di Leo observes, one of the primary functions of anthologies within the academy (and especially within literary studies) has been to provide maps of major areas of disciplines, if not a discipline as a whole (viz. The Norton Anthology of English Literature). The cartographers have traditionally been leading figures within fields (who better to know the terrain?), which, in turn, may grant these maps an authoritative status.  Here’s Di Leo crisp characterization of anthology’s disciplinary function:

Students and scholars alike rely on anthologies for accurate topologies of their disciplines. Initiates generally receive a contemporary anthology as if they had been handed a recently published atlas of the world: just as one does not question the atlas’s placement of cities and countries, one does not question the anthology’s mapping of authors and writings. […] Anthologies are considered to be reflective of the laws of their domain. Both students and teachers can be humbled and intimidated by their inventories of readings. The formative power of anthologies is often magical to students and regulative to teachers. (1)

Following the critic James J. Sosnoski, Di Leo names anthologies as part of the “apparatus of orthodoxy”: they frame for students and teacher what ought to be believed about, say, the state of the field or the status of various authors, topics, or approaches within it. Anthologies are thus closely associated with the process of forming and maintaining canons, or bodies of works understood by their framers to have superlative worth and thereby to comprise necessary reading for would-be members of the group surrounding the canon. Anthologies express their compilers’ understandings of what works are or should be canonical.

If, as Greenblatt suggests, anthologies may serve the democratic purpose of opening works to new audiences, they are also, as Di Leo argues, in the business of restriction. And, indeed, they must be given not only the physical limitations on how long a book could be to remain commercially viable but also the temporal limitations on how long the courses that use anthologies last. Di Leo’s key observation for present purposes, though, is that academic anthologies reflect visions of the field that become normative. They impose regulation on what counts as worthy or study. We can add here, too, that decisions about what to include or exclude from an anthology usually falls to single compiler or a small group, making the selection process autocratic or oligarchical. There are obvious logistical reasons for operating in this manner, of course. And, moreover, there are numerous situations in which readers may desire that one party or a few collaborators compile an anthology.


Writing in 2004, Di Leo offered these speculations about the future of anthologies:

“On-line [sic] publication further lowers the cost of access to materials. Public domain writings could be available on-line through a central database or Web site. Computer programs could be written to allow instructors to anthologize book and journal materials by designing Web sits that provide links to the books and journal articles already in their libraries’ collections. The variations on these themes are numerous. New technologies offer the potential to change the business of anthologies and to draw anthologizing more squarely into the public sphere. Once this technology becomes widely available, it will also radically alter the relationship between anthologies and academic culture.” (6)

No one has yet attempted to write a history of the “digital anthology,” so it is difficult to say whether what Di Leo imagined as possible had already been attempted, at least within humanities education. What we can say for sure is that the tools for creating such an anthology were already available (through sites such as Project Gutenberg). In the late 2000’s, a new tool was added when several major research libraries–such those of the University of Michigan, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford–allowed Google to digitize huge swaths of their holdings, creating Google Books. Now thousands of books only scholars could reach previously were made accessed to anyone with an Internet connection.

Our efforts to create an anthology this semester represent a foray into this new state of digital accessibility. We should thus be thoughtful this semester about how the broader availability of works from an earlier period, largely via scanning, is or could affect the role/shape of anthologies. We will also be talking about how digital affordances affect our experience of the anthology, both as makers and readers. At points, I also want to consider how traditional print anthology makers have begun to “enhance” their books with digital features. Consider, for example, Norton’s StudySpace (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael9/welcome.aspx).


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