Category Archives: research & study

Elephants and Rhinoceroses

Albrecht Durer’s Rhinoceros

How sad that the plural of rhinoceros isn’t rhinoceri. But actually that’s rather beside the point as in this post I wanted to discuss an amusing number of the Spectator that I read today. I’m reading my way through the 555 numbers of the original early-eighteenth-century Spectator essays for my Masters research.

Today I reached no. 50, in which Mr Spectator presents some reflections on England and it’s people supposedly written by a native American chief during his visit to England. A footnote in my edition, edited by Donald F Bond, helpfully provides the following details:

“In April 1710 four Iroquois sachems, or ‘Kings’, had visited London, accompanied by Col. Peter Schulyer and other colonial leaders, in order to solicit aid from the home government for military operations against the French in Canada. They had an audience of Queen Anne on 19 April, and were taken to see the principle sights of London.”

In Spectator 50 Mr S, as I like to call him, suggests that he was so intrigued by these visitors that he made enquiries of their London landlord after their departure. As a result he got hold of some papers that, once translated, proved to contain “an abundance of very odd Observations”. Mr S then proceeds to quote at length from these papers and so we hear King Sa Ga Yean Qua Rash Tow’s opinion of all things English.

These start rather predictably with his awe at St Paul’s Cathedral and his thoroughly incongruous suggestion that it must have been hewn out of the landscape in one piece.

Moving on from St Paul’s things get a bit more fun. On the topic of English fashion Sa Ga Yean comments as follows:

“The Men of the Country are very cunning … but withal so very idle, that we often saw young lusty raw-boned Fellows carried up and down the Streets in little covered Rooms by a Couple of Porters … Their dress is likewise very barbarous, for they almost strangle themselves about the Neck, and bind their Bodies with many Ligatures … Instead of those beautiful Feathers with which we adorn our Heads, they often buy up a monstrous Bush of Hair, which covers their Heads and falls down in a large Fleece below the middle of their Backs; with which they walk up and down the Streets, and are as proud of it as if it were their own Growth.”

Faced with the feminine fashion for applying false beauty spots, Sa Ga Yean suggests that English women

“would be more beautiful than the Sun, were it not for the little black Spots that are apt to break out in their faces” and finds that when these blemishes “disappear in one Part of the Face, they are very apt to break out in another”.

My favourite part of the observations though is the one that gives away the fact that these papers are forgeries of the Spectator author. Sa Ga Yean describes the fact that the two guides who have been assisting the kings are “great Enemies to one another”. One guide warns them against “a monstrous Kind of Animals, in the Shape of Men, called Whigs”, while the other warns them of a similar monster “called a Tory”. This picture of England’s political divide is completed with the observation that “These two Creatures, it seems, are born with a secret Antipathy to one another, and engage when they meet as naturally as the Elephant and the Rhinoceros.”

Now I’m no zoologist, but I’m fairly sure that elephants and rhinos aren’t native to North America and Canada.

Anyway I thought I’d put some notes about this Spectator paper up here as it probably isn’t going to be relevant to my MA thesis.

I’d like to close with Mr S’s very poignant, and still very relevant, conclusion:

“I cannot however conclude this Paper without taking Notice, That amidst these wild Remarks there now and then appears something very reasonable. I cannot likewise forbear observing, That we are all guilty in some Measure of the same narrow Way of Thinking which we meet with in this Abstract of the Indian Journal; when we fancy the Customs, Dresses and Manners of other Countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own.”

All quotations from: Donald F Bond, ed., The Spectator, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp 211-215.

Why we shouldn’t care about author intentions: some disorganised musings

Recently the Guardian ran an article about fiction writer Polly Courtney, who is because of the apparently misleading covers they inflicted on her books. Courtney cites frustration at the ‘pink, fluffy packaging’ Harper Collins imprint Avon has wrapped around her books, and has indicated she’ll be going back to self-publishing to take back control.

In , Julian Assange is in a fight with publishers Conongate who have printed an incongruously titled ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the apostle of free speech. It’s reported that Julian accepted a hefty advance and produced 70,000 words of memoir with ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan before giving up the project and spending the advance. Canongate have, rather understandably, decided to recoup their losses through the path of least resistance – publishing the autobiography without the approval of the ‘author’.

Finally, a story from closer to home, for which I have and offer no evidence or assurances of truth. I recently heard about an academic whose book suddenly appeared on Google Books without his permission. On his contacting Google he was, supposedly, paid some form of royalty and told that company policy was to deal with authors as they got in touch. The take home message of this story was meant to be ‘how evil is Google’, but I wasn’t really convinced.

So, three stories about cranky authors, angry at ‘unauthorised’ tampering with their work. The book historian in me wants to say so what? After all it was ever thus.

Lets start with the issue of packaging and marketing. In the medieval world of scribal reproduction an author would have had less than nothing to do with what physical form their work took. Those decisions were made by the individuals who commissioned the reproduction of a text – usually wealthy individuals or religious groups. Even after the introduction of print, sheets were sold unbound and without decoration, so that purchasers could choose the bindings and rubrication for themselves.

Of course binding isn’t the only important part of a book’s physical form: size, typography, paper and other factors were meaning-laden well beyond the medieval period – indicating that the intended audience was wealthy or poor, pious or a bit deviant (see for example Jerome McGann’s discussion of Byron’s Don Juan in “Theory of Texts”, London Review of Books, 1988). Given the clear importance of format on reader experience it’s important to ask who chose it. The answer varies, but the author almost never figures.

What, then, about cases of a text being published without the author’s knowledge or even in spite of their explicit wishes? The juiciest examples come from cases of posthumous publication. A in Time surveyed some famous cases of posthumous publication, from Machiavelli to Mark Twain, Jane Austen to Steig Larsson. Perhaps the most illustrative are those cases where an author has died leaving instructions that all their scribblings be destroyed. As Twain explained in a letter to Orion and Mollie Clemens, 19 and 20 October 1865

You had better shove this in the stove … I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted.

If wishes like these hadn’t been ignored the literary canon would be without major works by Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka among others. Just imagine how many PhDs would have remained unwritten.

The three parables at the start of these musings miss another important field of unauthorised modification, though. This includes reworkings, adaptations and other creative reimagining of literary works. William Shakespeare could never have imagined that his complete works would eventually be published 140 characters at a time on an internet microblogging site called Twitter, by a bot called ‘Willy Shakes’ (). Without explicit authorisation, then, should we denounce this as unacceptable piracy? What about cinematic adaptation of a dead author’s work – a la Lord of the Rings? Or the countless anthologies that rip and mix works, in the best tradition of medieval miscellanies.

These examples all demonstrate the myriad ways in which our culture accepts and engages in unauthorised modification and use of literary works. This is the practice of the last millenia and the stories at the top show that it continues to be common practice. The question remains, should we care? How acceptable is all of this repackaging, unauthorised publication and creative reworking?

I think there are two issues that need to be unpacked here. The first is commercial (who is and who should be making money out of a literary work), while the second is cultural (how can a work be used and influenced by subsequent individuals). Both of these issues are covered by copyright, but blanket protection and lock-down is not necessarily an ideal situation.

Generally, if anyone is making money out of a literary work, and if the author as primary creator is still around, then they have a right to a fair share in that profit.

In the academic world, such as in the example quoted above, things are a little more complicated. When an academic produces work on a salary at least partially funded by the general public, do they then have the right to charge the public for access to that work? Put like that it seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it too. Of course most academics get little to no profit out of a publication, so it’s the academic publishers who are milking the system. That’s a debate for another day though.

So, finally we consider post-author influence on and use of a piece of writing. There is a primary right that should always be respected – the right of attribution. If one person’s work has been used by another, that legacy should be clearly stated.

There is a limit though. Does an author have an unassailable right to control every reading of their work, down to look, feel and format? Should they be able to control (given the impossibility that they could foresee) how their work will be used, adapted, reworked and otherwise interpreted? In my opinion the answer to both of these questions is no. It’s neither practical nor desirable for the figure of an author to take on that level of power. Exalting one creative individual to this level ignores the fundamental fact that all writers come after – they have all been influenced, and those with enough talent and luck will influence in their turn.

It’s the work, not the intentions, that we should care about with authors. Recognising the legacy and, where appropriate, paying for the product are one thing. Allowing the figure of the author to have tyrannical control over a text is undesirable and unrealistic.

Research on the cloud: my top study tools for humanities postgraduates

So this week I officially become a student again for the first time since I graduated in 2008. I now have a student number and a supervisor. Next week I’ll enroll and take possession of my student card, along with a printing quota and library access, it’s all very exciting.

In truth, though, this just formalises my research – I like to think that I’ll always be a student at heart, and I’ve been working on my current project for more than 6 months and across two hemispheres.

The challenges of researching while traveling have made me a serious convert to cloud-based tools. I’ve spent hours (and hours and hours) researching which tools are the best, and now work with a select group of systems that work really well.

Given the time it took me to sort the good from the bad, I thought it would be worth sharing my list of the best cloud-based research tools. It’s not a huge list, but that’s a good thing, because that means more information stored in fewer places.

These will be particularly relevant to humanities postgraduates, although most are applicable to all disciplines. Oh, and all of these are free, although most have optional upgrades involving small fees. Best of all they are in the cloud, meaning you can access them all over the place, and your data isn’t dependent on one machine.

1. : The bibliographical system of the gods

Zotero comes out of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. It’s core focus is a Mozilla Firefox add-on, in which users can maintain a library of resources (books, journal articles, webpages). Yes, EndNote does this, but Zotero does it way, way better.

My Zotero library

The Zotero magic is in its ability to suck metadata out of almost anywhere. EndNote will only talk to, and import citations from, library catalogues and journal databases. The end result is a LOT of manual entry of records. Zotero, on the other hand, saves data from the source directly. It’s hard to explain, but check out the to see this in action – it is almost too good to be true.

Zotero links in to most major word processing software with a neat ad-on, again meaning that you are working within the program itself – no toggling between your word processor and the bibliographical software.

It also stores all of your records, notes, etc on external servers, so that if your computer dies or you have to work on another machine, you can still access all of your records. Oh, and on the topic of notes, by keeping your notes on Zotero (as standalone notes or tied to a specific book etc) they are fully text searchable.

I’ve also just seen their , which includes information about a range of great updates. These include the expansion of the add-on to cover other web browsers (including Safari and Chrome), an update of the web-based interface to allow full read-write capability (i.e. for when you don’t have the browser add-on) and updated word-processor integration.

I use this to: Collect, store and cite references. Keep notes about references. Search through my notes.

2. : notes

Evernote is very simply an online notebook. I used it a lot more before I got into Zotero in a big way, but it is still a really useful tool for jotting down thoughts in a place that can’t be left on a bus or in the library.

Its big advantage is that it is supported across almost all platforms (Zotero requires a computer) so you can record a note from your phone, iPad, friend’s computer etc. It’s simple, but quick – just what you want to capture those scurrying thoughts or flashes of genius.

It also has a cute function where you can ‘clip’ webpages or material from the web and store it as a note, although for serious research I would prefer to put things in Zotero and store it as a proper bibliographical entry.

I use this to: Hoard random thoughts that might come in useful someday.

3. : Easy and elegant timelines

This is a very handy web-based timeline creator, which is perfect for building a record of the key events and dates associated with the historical moment of your research. I find this a fantastic way to visualise and connect events. By  overlaying the events specific to my research with the major political and economic events of the time, things start to fit together.

My timeline - early stages yet

This is web-based, so you can log-in and add entries from anywhere, and you can even print your timeline.

I use this to: Store information about major events. See how events connect and fit together. Check which came first, the chicken or the egg.

4. Backup, backup backup!

Dropbox is a new addition to my list, but as I get further with my research the risk of losing everything is getting bigger by the minute. Dropbox offers a simple backup system, with the added advantage of a one-month history of your files, so if you accidentally save over that amazing first draft, you can retrieve it.

I use this to: Backup important files.

5. : Word processing on the cloud

A simple word processor that offers good collaboration tools and connectivity with Office. Its pretty basic, but in a good way.

I use this to: Work on files when I’m not at my own desk.

6. !

A blog platform probably isn’t the most typical research tool out there, but it does offer the research student some vital opportunities – namely the chance to workshop ideas, vent spleen, share links and generally connect. I looked at a lot of different blogging platforms and I’m really glad I took the plunge with WordPress.

I’m sure there are loads of other great tools out there, but these are my favourites, and I have to say they truly make my life easier. If anyone has suggestions get commenting!

J