Pet Book #2: Digitization

A number of digitizations of Astoria exist currently; among them, a Google books photocopy of the full text of the ‘Continental’ (that is, European, specifically published and printed in Paris for sale in bookstores there and across the continent) edition of 1836, which contains only moderate differences (mostly paratextual, such as the printers’ mark on the title page, or how it is lacking certain other para-textual elements and advertisements ) from the edition I am working with on hand at Snell. Of note is that Google’s cataloging system does not seem to mark this difference anywhere that I can see; anyone with bibliographical familiarity with Astoria would immediately note the difference, marked as it is on the first page. To me, this speaks to the instability of the ontological status of books in general: is there some ‘form’ of Astoria, whether that be some authentic version or printing, or some ideal content separate from the materiality of the book as such, etc. Can one simply photocopy or digitally transliterate any particular edition of Astoria and authentically call it Astoria, or is there a problematic totalization taking place that is worth examining?

Let’s engage this another way: a second digital copy of Astoria also exists online on Project Gutenberg. This version, like the Google books version, does not note any publication information – worse, however, because it is a true digitization (in the sense that it is not just an image file, but is rather a digital version of the text of the book), the individual or computer responsible for digitizing it left out the title page. This means, effectively, that without an intense series of comparative readings, we can’t exactly tell which edition of Astoria was digitized, a problem exacerbated by the fact that this electronic edition seems to have combined the two volumes of the original publication of Astoria into one file. Setting aside the fact that there is a phenomenological or, at the very least, experiential differences in reading Astoria as one book or file rather than two, this also demands that we consider a third electronic copy of Astoria found online: the 1849 Author’s revised, single volume edition, a scan of which is available in a digital archive of books from the reference library of a German author named Arno Schmidt. Now we are dealing with three electronic copies (the Google books scan of volume 1, the Gutenberg digitization of volumes one and two, and the GAPL scan of a combined edition) which suggest at least 3 different print versions, not to mention the print edition referenced in the catalog in the end of my copy of Astoria which is on cheaper paper and lacks maps. At first glance, this might further problematize the question of the lineage of the Gutenberg copy (it could, for example, be a digitization of either both volumes of the two volume set, or of the revised edition, or the standard/not deluxe version of the two volume set, or something else entirely), but I think what it really suggests is that asking about an original version of a digital book, or any book, is actually asking the wrong question.

Ultimately, I suspect that we are better off in treating different editions, digital and otherwise, as exactly that – different. We ought to consider that, essentially, even the original manuscript or handwritten notes which came to form Astoria, might themselves just be simulacra, copies, reproductions which, to quote, briefly, Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, are “reduced to the difference which fragments them, and to all the differences which are implicated in it and through which they pass.” That is, that each edition, even a scan of a copy of the book from the NYPL, is essentially different from the others and demands individual consideration. The textuality of a scan, the experience of the occasional illegibility from poorly captured pages, offers a radically different experience and ought not be reduced to being ‘the same.’

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