I just spent a week at Rare Book School—a program based at UVA that offers book-related courses to scholars, collectors, librarians, booksellers, etc—learning about the principles and best practices of scholarly editing. It was an incredible, valuable, and exhausting experience, and I’ve written a more extensive blog post about the ins and outs of the program elsewhere. But, I wanted to take a few minutes to put this experience in the specific context of our departmental concerns. Here’s why you, Lehigh grad students, should consider Rare Book School:
These points are specific to the course I took on scholarly editing, but there may be value in any RBS course.
1) It can boost your knowledge of your own scholarship.
I have been a tried-and-true fan of particular editions of works throughout my academic career. These editions seem professional, scholarly, exhaustive, all the things I need to form solid arguments. I’ve learned that they are highly critical editions (meaning the editor intervenes a lot in the text itself, whether it’s through leading footnotes or choices made about the text itself), but there is little information about what decisions the editor made, how they were made, and where variations in the text can be found. If you’re using any kind of close reading to support your argument, you want to know that the words you’re discussing have been in every edition of that work and, if not, when and why they might have shifted. We talked about a well-known example of a scholar who grounded a reading of Moby Dick in the words, “some inert, soiled fish of the sea,” but the world “soiled,” as was later pointed out, was originally “coiled,” in the American and British first editions. The switch was, most likely, a mistake on the part of the typesetter. What does that do to the scholar’s argument? A strong critical edition will include variants like this in its editorial appendix or note on the text so that scholars can make solid arguments on words of which they can be certain, or at least informed. Now, I will most likely still use these particular editions, but I may need to consult other editions for my close readings. Any of the courses at RBS will give you a greater understanding of the materials you use and how they are presented and accessed.
The last time I taught Frankenstein, I assigned the Broadview 1818 edition because of cost and the historical materials in the appendices. When one student, puzzled that her edition seemed to include different chapters than what we discussed in class, brought me the Bantam Classics edition, I asked her if it was the 1818 or 1831 edition. She said it didn’t say. I directed her to a library copy of the correct text and investigated what she had been reading. It was true, the Bantam Classics edition said nothing about which edition it included. When I compared it to the 1818 edition, it didn’t line up… but it also didn’t match the 1831 edition (okay, I own a lot of editions of Frankenstein…). It was then that I contacted Random House to see what was going on with this truly Frankensteinian edition. Their (not
polite) answer: they had no idea. It was from a 1967 typeset that had been reprinted in 1981. They had no idea on what the typeset was based or where it came from. Even before attending RBS, I recognized this as bad editing practice and considered this to be a useless edition. But, sometimes first-year students do not always recognize the importance of specific editions or even that editions differ from one another. This is something we can teach them. Knowing a little about what they’re reading and how it is presented can help them think about how that text may have changed from its first edition and what those changes can mean. It can help them think about audience and authorial intention, and it can maybe even help them to develop a new appreciation for what they’re reading.
3) It can add to your skill set, especially if you’re considering alt-ac careers.
Now, I don’t think that one week of classes at RBS is going to 100% qualify anyone for an alt-ac career as an editor, librarian, or curator of a collection. You learn a lot but, of course, not enough to compete with people who have actual degrees or experience in these areas. It can be a start, however, and can perhaps help you figure out what kinds of skills you have and what you still might need for these kinds of endeavors. I may not be ready to sit down and edit an edition of something today, but at least I now know where to start and where to turn for help.
4) It can… just be fun?
I think it’s safe to say that we all have an appreciation for books, but this is not entirely the kind of scholarship we’re used to. In the longer post, I talk about feeling like a fish out of water early on in the program because I was used to thinking about books in a particular way… and most of the students who lean more towards library science or bibliography think about from a slightly different angle. It can be really important to get out of your comfort zone, especially about something about which you already feel passionate, and the community is knowledgeable and welcoming. RBS offers courses that touch on most, if not all, time periods and specialties, and the faculty go out of their way to make the courses interesting, relevant, and enjoyable. Plus, I got to use a Hinman collator and give a report on Mary Shelley’s first draft of Frankenstein. What’s more fun than that??