Electronic Textual Editing: Foreword [G. Thomas Tanselle]

For the summer 2000 number of The American Scholar: , D. T. Max wrote an essay called “The Electronic Book,.” which includes an account of the author's conversation with a six-year-old who was excited over her developing ability to read. She had gone through Charlotte's Web both in a conventional printed book (with illustrations) and in an e-book, and Max asked her which she preferred. Her answer was, ‘Any book.’ Max was at first surprised but then realized that she had implied a ‘crucial’ point about the new technology: ‘Bits, atoms, paper, plastic are going to change Citizen X's life, but what's going to matter most is what she reads’ (28). This interpretation of the girl's reply--that substance is more important than form--is indeed the way to begin thinking about her comment. The question itself reflected a generation gap: to anyone whose earliest reading matter is in both forms--which therefore seem routine and interchangeable--the question appeared almost foolish, or at least of no more significance than asking, ‘Do you prefer paperbacks or hard-cover books?’ Of course, whether e-books are as convenient to handle and use as the codices that preceded them is not an irrelevant matter, but convenience is not entirely a function of developing technology, for what one becomes accustomed to is a fundamental factor. As more people grow up using e-books, they will not find the technology a distraction, and the six-year-old's attitude will become a common one.

Despite the turn-of-the-century fascination with predicting the future role of electronic texts, this point is probably all that needs to be said about whether e-books will triumph over printed books. But it is not the only point that the little girl's comment should lead us to. Although she was more comfortable with e-books than many adults would be at present, her comment was similar to what most adults say about conventional books, in that it did not take into account the role that physical presentation plays in the reading experience. An increasingly populated field of literary study has made scholars acutely aware of what psychologists, in their different way, have long understood: people may think that ‘any book’ will do as well as any other for reading a given work, but all the details of graphic design, which are likely to vary from printing to printing (and e-book to e-book), do affect readers' responses. Whether those details, or some of them, were intended by the author to be part of the work is a separate question, and one not necessarily of interest to the few readers who think of it, but the details do nevertheless have their effect. (And if one wishes to try to recapture the reading experience of a prior time, one has to turn, not to a scholarly edition, whether printed or electronic, but to the original physical objects that carried the text at that time.) Another way that ‘any book’ claiming to contain a particular work is not the equivalent of all others--a possibly more obvious way, if no more often recognized by most readers--is that the texts may vary. Textual scholars have documented, in their essays and editions, how important it is for readers to understand the textual history of the works they read, and thus the relation of one text to another; but the bulk of readers remain unaware of the value of questioning the makeup of the texts they encounter, in whatever form.

Since these points are applicable to all appearances of texts in all forms, the little girl was in one sense right to answer as she did. In saying essentially that the distinction between electronic and printed texts was not one that she considered significant, she was quite correctly implying that the question had been misconceived. With more sophistication, she might have said, ‘I know that letterforms, layouts, and other physical aspects of textual presentation affect reading, and I know that the text of a work may not be the same in all the physical objects that claim to display it, but whether a text is electronic or printed has nothing to do with these matters. Electronic appearances of texts are simply appearances of texts, and it would be pointless for me to say that in general I prefer them to printed appearances, or vice versa. The appearance I prefer for each work depends on the particular text and design features it offers.’ This expanded reply suggests the lesson we should extrapolate from her terse answer. It is a lesson that, one might think, is too obvious to need teaching, but many people have a hard time keeping it in mind in the midst of all the hyperbolic writing and speaking about the ‘computer age,’ which suggest a basic discontinuity with what went before.

Even those engaged in textual criticism and scholarly editing have sometimes been swept along by the general euphoria and lost their sense of perspective. Their concerns, after all, are at the heart of the new developments, for what the computer offers, as far as verbal communication is concerned, is a new way of producing and displaying visible texts. It can be of such great assistance to editors and other readers that they would be foolish not to make use of it and be excited about it. But when the excitement leads to the idea that the computer alters the ontology of texts and makes possible new kinds of reading and analysis, it has gone too far. The computer is a tool, and tools are facilitators; they may create strong breaks with the past in the methods for doing things, but they are at the service of an overriding continuity, for they do not change the issues that we have to cope with.

The common claim that the arrival of electronic texts is comparable to the dawn of the age of Gutenberg five and a half centuries ago should in fact be understood as reinforcing this point (though the comparison is often used to suggest discontinuity). The invention of printing from movable type greatly facilitated the production of tangible verbal texts, but it did not change the questions that readers need to ask about the nature of verbal works; the development of computers is another such change, assisting us with our old inquiries but not rendering them irrelevant or outmoded. When we create and use electronic texts, we still have to ponder, as before, the mode of existence of the linguistic medium; we still have to think about the relations among mental, audible, and visible texts; we still have to consider whether it is meaningful to pursue authorially intended texts or whether the documentary texts that survive from the past (perhaps purged of the obvious errors that can be identified) are the only texts we should study; we still have to decide how to present the results of our textual research to other readers. Editors have always had to deal with these questions, and different sets of answers to them have produced the great variety of editions that we have. The use of the computer in editing does not change the questions, and the varying temperaments of editors will continue to result in editions of differing character.

When people say that the computer makes possible certain kinds of textual research, such as locating all the appearances of particular words in a given text or group of texts, they are using the word possible inexactly to mean ‘practically feasible.’ But what is feasible is a relative matter, as much related to individual attitudes as to technology. We may now find it sad that some scholars of the past spent large portions of their lives compiling and proofreading concordances, but our sympathy is misplaced: there is nothing sad about scholars performing heroic tasks by the only means available to them. Word-searching has been greatly facilitated, of course, by the existence of searchable electronic texts, but it has always been possible; and whether something takes more time than one is willing to spend is an eternal question relevant to all tasks, one that in each instance may be answered differently by different people. The misuse of possible is not a trivial matter, for it is symptomatic of the exaggerated claims one often hears about computers, and these claims do not provide a useful foundation for thinking productively about just what computers can in fact do for us.

The idea that electronic texts encourage a new kind of reading has also been overstated. Because the press of a key or the click of a mouse can (if the texts have been so linked) take one instantly from a given point in one transcribed text to a given point in another and can make it easy to locate the same points in images of the relevant documents or to go to reproductions of relevant visual art and music, there has been a feeling that new reading habits will emerge: the reader will constantly move around and backtrack rather than taking a straightforward linear path. No doubt many (perhaps even most) people will find it easier to read this way in electronic editions than in printed ones; but the codex is not in fact an inefficient instrument for ‘radial reading’ (as it is now often called), and most readers--of all kinds of books, not just scholarly editions--have always done a great deal of it. What makes the job easier is less a matter of technology than of how thoughtfully a text or set of texts is cross-referenced--with tables of contents, running heads, footnote numbers, indexes, and so on, as well as lists of variants and other textual data, in codices; or with a network of searching capabilities, as well as linked apparatuses and other editorial material, in electronic texts. Such aids to radial reading can be well or poorly constructed regardless of whether the means of presentation is printed or electronic.

The matter of readability involves other issues as well. Electronic editions raise in clear form a question that has always been present: are scholarly editions meant for prolonged reading or only for reference? Some people have felt that, even in codex form, editions are not designed for reading and that on the screens of monitors they are even less conducive to it. But these points are misdirected. Future improvements in e-books will eliminate the latter concern; and the idea that reading and reference cannot be simultaneously accommodated, whatever the form, is at odds with the concept of radial reading (which combines both). Surely the richest kind of reading depends on having conveniently at hand, for constant reference, the information that textual scholars have amassed. The real issue is how best to provide guidance for readers. In a codex edition, where there is usually enough space for only one long text to be offered in full (the other relevant texts being present in apparatus form), the reader is in effect instructed to use the full text (which may be a documentary or an editorially emended one) as the base from which to engage in radial reading that embraces variants in other texts. In an electronic edition, with unlimited space, all the relevant texts are likely to be presented in full, and readers may feel disoriented without some direction from the editor. (A few multi-volume ‘archives’ of reproductions of documentary texts do exist in codex form, and they pose the same problem for readers, along with a greater logistical challenge.)

It is a distinct advantage, of course, for readers to have choices as to the points of entry they wish to use; but in order to approach their radial reading effectively, they need the editor's assistance in the form of comments on the textual history of the work, organized records of variants in the relevant documentary texts, and the like. They also need editorially emended texts in order to see how the mass of evidence has been used in reading by scholars who have made themselves expert in the textual history of the work. Unlike codex editions, electronic ones can easily include many such emended texts, attempting to reconstruct authorial intentions at different stages, publishers' intentions, and any other sets of intentions that seem relevant; they can also offer texts as emended by earlier editors, for all previous editions are documents attesting to the history of the work. Up to now, scholarly projects for publishing electronic texts have tended to take the form of ‘archives,’ and it is understandable that editors would revel in their newfound freedom to offer images and transcriptions of all relevant primary documents. But their goal of giving readers the freedom, in turn, of conveniently studying different textual manifestations of a work is not fully realized without offering a variety of editorial helps and emended texts. This point shows, once again, that the advantages of the electronic form are maximized when one recognizes that the technology contributes to the process of building on past accomplishments.

The difficulty people have in defining just what changes the computer has brought about in the reading and study of verbal texts can be illustrated by a passage in David Scott Kastan's Shakespeare and the Book. Kastan's discussion (in his final chapter) of the shift from codex to computer is a particularly thoughtful one, and I choose this example to show that even a person as perceptive as he is can falter in locating the line between the old and the new. He observes initially that people's feelings about electronic texts seem to be aroused more strongly by the form in which those texts appear than by the technology that underlies them. But then he notes that, whereas ink remains on a piece of paper, a saved electronic file is reconstituted every time it is called up on the screen. Therefore, he says, ‘It seems to me that it is actually this ontological distinction between the electronic text and the printed text that unsettles, which if true means that the mode of production is, in fact, every bit as much the issue as the mode of display. Texts in this form are fluid and transient, clearly separate from the physical instantiations that enable them to be read’ (115). Whether or not we wish to claim an ontological distinction between ink and pixels, the concept of ‘text’ has obviously shifted its meaning between the two sentences. In the first, a text is a physical thing, an arrangement of words and punctuation in a particular visible form. In the second, it is the sequence of words and punctuation itself, an abstraction that can be given any number of concrete renderings (in the same or different media). Printed and electronic renderings are thus not ontologically different; they may be made of different physical materials, but the conceptual status of the texts in each case is identical. The philosophical conundrum as to where texts reside is exactly the same as it always was.

We should be enthusiastic about the electronic future, for it will be a great boon to all who are interested in texts; but we do not lay the best groundwork for it, or welcome it in the most constructive way, if we fail to think clearly about just what it will, and what it will not, change. Procedures and routines will be different; concepts and issues will not. For editors and other readers, the computer dramatically increases the efficiency of manipulating information, and the storage capacity of electronic editions can result in improved accessibility to variant texts. But these desirable changes do not alter the questions we must ask about texts or guarantee a greater amount of intelligent reading and textual study. We will be spared some drudgery and inconvenience, but we still have to confront the same issues that editors have struggled with for twenty-five hundred years.

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