Beauties, Scraps, and Slips: Notes towards a history of partial readers and readings
Disapproving accounts of how literary scholars read now, after the digital turn, often highlight the fissiparous, fragmenting effects of the practices of word searching, page viewing, clipping, downloading, and data-mining that, more and more, pass for reading in the age of the electronic database. To read under the sign of information, Geoffrey Nunberg prophesied in 1996, is to divest textual objects of the qualities of boundedness and wholeness that have endowed them with their individuated objecthood. We have conceptualized information in ‘morcelized’ ways, Nunberg suggested, ‘as little atoms of content . . . each independently detachable, manipulable, and tabulable.’ Instead of the New Critics’ Well Wrought Urn, we are left with a mosaic work-- think of the bags of words that appear, disconcertingly, to have been scattered pell-mell across the slides our digital humanist colleagues project when they document their exercises in topic modelling.
However, by way of acknowledging that our colleagues’ computers are, as Daniel Shore has suggested, ‘just the latest in a long line of prostheses used to … manipulate … and cull texts,’ this essay takes a longer historical view. I zero in on the challenges that, since the early modern period, have confronted the concept and the reality of the whole and bounded book: challenges mounted by a group I call partial readers--readers who elevate parts over wholes, but also readers who are partial in the affective sense that involves favouritism and fondness. Taking its examples principally from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain, this paper unfolds as a set of notes on the history of readers’ variable interactions with books in pieces. These are interactions, I will propose, that blur the boundary between reading and non-reading and the read and unread. My paper will move from a consideration of books of beauties, to scrapbooks and scraps, to the paper slips created by eighteenth-century antiquarians and early textual critics, whose often-literal scissoring up of printed books might be a harbinger of our information age’s restiveness with formats, like that of the bound and paginated book, that preserve lexical content by locking it down within an enduring organizational framework. This traverse of the multiple forerunners of Google Books’ evocatively named ‘snippet view’ will, I hope, illuminate a long-standing polarity and rivalry between the whole book and modernity’s flood of unbound paper.
Deidre Lynch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature in the Department of English at Harvard University.