Pet Book Report #4: The Civil War in Song and Story

To compensate for the limited hours of the Northeastern Archive, I’ve been using several digitized copies of my pet book and the pamphlet series from which it reprints to jog my memory and flesh out ideas I developed in handling the book while writing these blog posts. Implicit in both Mod’s and Flanders’s discussions of ways of looking at texts digitally are a concern with what reading is, with what, if not the pages and the physicality, are the most essential qualities of books. Mod, in particular, has shed light for me on how Moore’s work (an anthology in a conventional sense) might’ve captured the essence of reading about the Civil War in a way newspapers and other formats might not’ve been able to. Mod’s opening list of the design flaws of ebooks–“sloppy typography, misspelt words, confusing page breaks, widows, orphans, broken tables”–all boil down to things which disrupt the flow of the text. And the editorial changes I’ve been able to track from several articles’ original (re)prints in the Rebellion Record and their final form in The Civil War in Song and Story all seem to have been made to that end. In one anecdote, “A Challenge,” which appears on p. 160 of The Civil War in Song and Story and was printed in Volume 2 of the Rebellion Record, the background material was reduced to, “The following is a copy of a challenge, which appears to have been prepared by a member of the Pillow Guards:–” from its original, “The following is a copy of a challenge which was obtained from a passenger who came up not long since from Memphis. It appears to have been prepared by a member of the Pillow Guards; but whether it will ever be presented in due form, remains to be seen. It seems, at least, that there is one individual among that guard that wants to fight.” “John Brown’s Song,” which appears on p. 509, has undergone several other changes from its printing in Volume 2 of the Rebellion Record, but one of the most significant for me is the removal of the attribution to the “N.Y. Tribune, July 28″ that has been left off in The Civil War in Song and Story. Moore has also dispensed with the categories he used to structure the whole of the Rebellion Record, “Documents,” “Poetry,” and “Anecdotes,” in his anthology; poems, songs, and anecdotes are set side-by-side, without distinction. All of these changes can be read as acknowledgements by Moore of what is essential to the “reading experience,” as Mod puts it, of the Civil War anthology. We’ve discussed removal of attribution as a way to increase the standing of a newspaper or simply out of practical concerns, but here Moore treats attribution as being as potentially distracting to readers “superfluous page-turning animations” or the iBooks clock (Mod). In the same way Mod draws a distinction between ebooks and “poorly typeset PDFs,” implying that there is something beyond just the words on the page that create an experience of reading, Moore cuts and edits in order to distinguish himself from the newspapers, to mold his material into the most suitable form for the experience his readers demand.

Comparing the level of care that was put into digitizing The Civil War in Song and Story, an anthology–aiming to bring “together a wide range of material bound by some common factor”–in the traditional sense, with the careful methodology of the Women Writer’s Project usefully illustrates for me a gap between the “one vast textual field” Flanders describes and her suggestion that “the digital anthology…is also in a sense the form which that landscape as a whole is taking.” As far as I’ve been able to tell, The Civil War in Song and Story has only been digitized by projects that have as their primary goal scope, like Google Books, the Internet Archive BookReader, and HathiTrust. I usually work with the text open in all three because of the unique ways in which each interface constrains how I can use the text. Google Books and HathiTrust capture page images in full, a necessity if I need to mark down the page number for later reference; as a result, both of them are slow and difficult to use on an older laptop. When I’m looking to quickly confirm whether a certain word is in a particular work, I use the .txt file the Internet Archive BookReader provides, but the OCR-provided transcription is truly awful (just to give one example, at one point it transcribes the header “ANECDOTES, POETRY, AND INCIDENTS” as “AHSODOTBS, FOSTBT, AND INCIDEBNT8”). This transcription is often based on the version Google Books searches when you attempt to search within the text. HathiTrust brings you to a different page when you try to search within a text, and refuses to search for phrases, bringing up every instance of “John” and “Brown” instead of “John Brown.”

If the Women Writer’s Project’s lack of information on the illustrations and material conditions of the texts they digitize represents for them a case of “mak[ing] the primary source materials available…rather than to prepare scholarly editions of a few texts,” or in other words a choice for breadth over depth, Google Books and its ilk make the WWP’s level of editorial intervention look positively tyrannical (Flanders). The question Flanders mentions of “whether encoding itself was, or could ever be, an objective process or whether it inevitably constituted an editorial intervention” is interesting to me, because the way in which the digitized book on these platforms is an island unto itself, with no way to trace back the history of certain pieces of text (a magical database where individual articles were encoded as elements would’ve made last Thursday afternoon a lot more productive than spending four hours in the archive tracking down three cases in which something from the Rebellion Record was reprinted in The Civil War in Song and Story) or even to combine the limited tools I had available (also: none of these projects seem to have heard Mod’s lesson about reducing distractions) like search across two or more texts. Overwhelmingly what is lacking from these resources is the distinction Flanders makes between an archive and an anthology: the “logic of collection,” the ability to read multiple works “as a whole as a larger historical text.” This is in itself an editorial statement about how books are used.

Though these online resources have a long way to go before meeting either Mod’s or Flanders’s standards for the ideal digital text, they still allow me to explore how my pet book is embedded in contexts beyond itself. And at heart, what both Flanders and Mod suggest as being the great potential for digitization is an interconnectedness between texts or between readers. The WWP hands power to the reader in another way, by assuming that readers have a better sense of what specific collection of works suits their subject of study and giving them the power to anthologize according to their needs. Digitization of copies of the Rebellion Record and Civil War-era newspapers lets me read The Civil War in Song and Story against past versions of itself and other options readers would’ve had besides Moore’s work in a way that I just wouldn’t have access to without these resources.

The tools Mod suggests for taking advantage of the unique information which digital books are capable of generating suggest a methodology that focuses not on what writers mean but what readers read (I’m sure there’s a real term for this but I’m going to use inter-readerality for now). I can access how contemporary readers might’ve read Moore through the New York Times’ archived, “If it is the aim of the editor to collect all the pointless items, and specimens of the worst poetry which newspapers can be prevailed upon to publish, it is but justice to say that he seems in a fair way for achieving an eminent success” from June 2, 1861, or through the Boston Transcript‘s recommendation of it to “those who would preserve and ponder the authentic chronicle of the war” (which I access through Alice Fahs’s The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865, a book that in itself I wouldn’t have discovered or been able to access without the beneficence of Google Books). And I can access how today’s readers make meaning from Moore’s anthology through reviews, something else that is a product of the Internet’s proliferation of access, from “I didn’t realize the print was going to be so small. It was very hard to read” on Amazon to “I just began reading this book, but thus far it is full of life and vivid tales from the era of the war between the states. I love every chance I get to read a story or two” on the ever-versatile Google Books.

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