Interesting: Copyright, History of the Book, Pirates

The Chronicle has an interesting article on Adrian Johns. His 1998 book The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making sounds particularly interesting.

Also interesting was the Einstein-Johns argument.

Johns challenged some dominant lines of thought about book history, arguing against the idea that the printing press had swiftly brought about a “print culture” with unique traits, like fixed and stable editions of works.

His argument is leveled at one scholar in particular: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, a pioneer in the field of the history of the book who is now an emerita professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Eisenstein has long argued that the printing press essentially led to the Renaissance, by allowing the dissemination of knowledge and easy consistency of book editions that were not possible in what she calls “manuscript culture.”

But Johns argues that even after printing was established, stability was never guaranteed. Pirate editions of Hamlet, for instance, botched the play’s most famous line as, “To be or not to be, Aye, there’s the point.”

In fact, he argues, the printing press led to some new kinds of inconsistencies. New printers hoping to cash in on popular plays sent people to write down dialogue from performances for unauthorized print editions. He focuses on the stories of the people who started given printing practices rather than on the assumption that the technology forced them.

Einstein says he was wrong, but I know he was right. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels changed a lot. Shakespeare’s works… We don’t even have a reasonable version of those. Many, many pirated versions came out with inconsistencies, after the printing press.

And there was textual consistency before the printing press. Sir John Mandeville’s Travels has several hundred extant manuscript copies. If we have several hundred now, imagine how many more there would have been at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge