Monday, November 06, 2006

Gutenberg-e and the direction of monographs

Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her seminal book "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," observed that Johann Gutenberg went bankrupt publishing the exact same type of book the scribes were already creating. The printed book did not catch a wide audience until after printers and authors started experimenting with size, format, ephemera, etc. And all this took time. For example, it wasn't until 1560 that someone thought to number both the chapters and the verses in the Bible. I keep thinking of Eisenstein's book as we study digital history. We too, are in this experimental phase, and who knows how different electronic publishing will look--and sound--in the next few decades. I do not think we have found the most exemplary use for electronic media yet, but the market and the demand will slowly coax innovation out of the most clever and supple-minded experimentors in the field.
Peter Mannings' article brought up several ideas worthy of extensive commentary, but I found his most intriguing comment dealt with the publishing of junior scholars' work over senior scholars' (paragraph 50). Would a senior scholar be willing to take more chances than someone still looking for tenure? The despirate struggle to achieve that tenured position is one of the more entertaining aspects of working around academics. Not meaning to sound cruel, but the older faculty (at other colleges I've been to--present company exculded) frequently use this opportunity as a rite of passage (see hazing) through which to force their younger colleagues through. And while experimentation may be out of the question for a novitiate struggling to fit in a hidebound system, are more senior scholars up to learning a few new tricks? Actually, I have seen mature historians open new avenues of thought and presentation, and really create some outstanding work. But usually in cooperation with younger colleagues. Part of the problem with the monograph concept is that is is frequently the work of a single individual. Now, put the energy and innovative spirit of a fresh Ph.D together with a mature (and crafty) professor, and that may be when sparks start to fly. After all, early incanabula came into being as a collaboration between the author and the printer. Too often, the author got all the credit. But much of what we now think of as a book came from the craft and invention of the printers.
Is the monograph a dead form? I hope not, because with some ideas it takes time to ferment into full-blown concepts. Lately I have found articles reflect bold research done on smaller aspects that don't require the full treatment. And boy, do I appreciate not having to wade through a full book to find a small idea. Both are necessary. Looking at the problem from the perspective of a first-year Ph. D student, I'm jealous those authors in the article found such fascinating research topics that could extend into book form. I have yet to find such a good idea. Darn their eyes!


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