Monday, May 10, 2010

Book Production

It's been a couple of days since I posted here, and the reason for this is, ultimately, that the process of staring at books (and my computer) all day means that once I have free time, the last thing I want to do is spend it staring at the monitor again!

But as I've been working on this stuff, I've also been doing some work for Chizine -- copy-editing for bob Boyczuk's new book Nexus Ascension.  And I've been working on a SpecFic blog (which is worth checking out...I made all the images myself!).  The ultimate connection I've been thinking about is that start go-to trope for medievalists trying to explain their relevance: how medieval book production is kind of like the Internet.

The model goes something like this.  In the fourteenth century, you have people just beginning to write in English (previously they had been writing in Latin and French).  Paper-making, the printing press are about a hundred years off.  but before then you start having new ways of producing books--that is, they've moved out of the monasteries and are being icnreasingly picked up by the clerks and scriveners who are part of the court bureaucracy.  So you see more "commercial" books being produced around London, York, the West Midlands (though that's still more monastically centred).

Anyway, books are still really expensive so you buy one book and everyone uses it.

This is kind of like the Internet in that you have a period of intense linguistic change tied to a new medium of communication.  We have the Internet linked with mobile phones and texting.  Obviously, technology is shaping linguistic change (just look at LEET speak or the whole codes developing around texting and chatting).  We see increased code-switching going on outside of those media as the language gets picked up.  I just recently saw a subway poster that had a bunch of reference like "omg" and "lol" in order to try to make the content seem fresh and relevant.  It failed, though, because they offered little footnotes to translate.  It's the same kind of process as a new set of linguistic codes are being implemented.  But no one would want to read a novel in text-speak or LEET-speak, right?  Right?

That's the way it was in the fourteenth century.  English was easier so everyone used it.  Slowly it started getting itnegrated into books...mostly things like carols and songs because they were short, catchy, and a kind of easily shared and disseminated textual unit. 

But as I start investigating how the web really works, how search engines rank pages, how text gets copied (credited or not), and re-disseminated, you start realizing that there are similar kinds of cultural networks playing out.  Everyone wants content.  You can tell content that is "hot" (culturally relevant) because it gets cut up and re-disseminated.  Look at the Prick of conscience (early fourteenth century, massive compendia with a very fire-and-brimstone flavour).  We think it's crap, but they loved it!  Bits of it get re-used, re-cycled into other texts or into non-textual units like stained glass windows.  Something like Pearl and Gawain and the Green Knight, only surviving in one manuscript, don't get the same kind of cultural relevance.  The quality of the content has nothing to do with it.  Points go to the writer with the best network set up and who can produce the most easily digestible, recyclable "sound byte" pieces.  Something like a lyric has a huge potential for transference because it is short, snappy, easy to read and easy to integrate.  Something like Pearl is dense, difficult to digest, and harder to re-use.

Makes me think that we need to start re-evaluating our sense of cultural saturation and how literature plays into it.  I think we'd find there's a lot missing from the fourteenth century.

Now, I just need to write a dissertation about it...