Technology and the Book

In my last post I mentioned the fact that an essay of mine has recently been published in Shakespeare and the Digital World, a new book edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan for Cambridge University Press. I received my contributor copies in the mail last week, and I’ve been enjoying flipping through the pages and seeing what kinds of issues come up in the other chapters. The book is divided into four sections – research, teaching, publication, performance – and rather than wait until I’ve finished the entire thing, which might take awhile given all the other stuff that is (quite literally) on my desk, I thought I’d blog about the book section-by-section as I work my way through it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first book to try to take stock of how digital knowledge, practice, and life is shaping the way in which academics of all varieties are working with Shakespeare today, and I think and hope it will be of interest to quite a lot of people in the field.

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But before jumping straight into the four sections, I wanted to reflect a bit on Carson and Kirwan’s introduction, which invites us to think about the nature of the book itself. I suppose some people might question whether or not a critical discussion about digital transformation should really take place in a physical book like the one photographed above, but I think Carson and Kirwan are right that ‘What a book can do well, and has always done well, is to provide an extended argument on a topic through a structured approach that leads the reader through it in manageable stages.’ (p. 2) The idea gave me pause; it is, on the face of it, an obvious statement, but it manages to articulate something clearly and succinctly that we very often take for granted – that a book is a discursive form, and that switching to other kinds of publication platforms isn’t just a change in delivery format, it is a change in discourse and argumentation themselves.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but the power of the book as a form hit me last year when we published A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, much of which already existed online as a collaborative blog (www.yearofshakespeare.com). The aim of the website and book was to document and respond to each of the more than 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were put on in 2012 as part of the UK’s Olympic celebrations. While the website finished around November 2012, the book came out in April 2013, and I was surprised by how publishing the essays as a book really did give them a new identity and life. Of course, somewhat predictably, it meant that certain people now recognized its contents as research – authorized by an academic press, materialized on a physical page, it gained new status for some as legitimate knowledge. But this wasn’t all the book did for the project. First, and very simply, the physical book reached readers that the website didn’t, and vice versa. I suppose it wasn’t unlike touring a theatre production to different audiences, or even recording it and sending people the DVD. By putting the contents onto different kinds of stages, a wider cross-section of audiences knew about it.

Year of Shakespeare: the website

Second, and even more significantly, the book influenced the fundamental nature of the project, even if most of the words themselves did not change. While the website contained about 130 essays, hundreds of user comments, dozens of audio interviews with audience members, and as much multimedia material as we could find, the book contained one essay for each of the 74 productions in the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, topped and tailed with new material from me and my two co-editors. Most of the production essays had already appeared on the blog (in fact, they’re still there), but they had not appeared as a sequence that could be worked through step by step, and they certainly hadn’t appeared as a collection that you could hold, measure, and visualize as an object (i.e. object-ively?).

Year of Shakespeare: the book

As a book the size and scope of the project is more easily grasped – even if, ironically, the book is a more select version of the collaborative website. I don’t think some people realized that the project really did cover all of the festival until they could see it together in material form. There is also a sense of linear progression and narrative sequence in a book, even if that sequence is at times arbitrary (we ended up going with alphabetical order by Shakespeare play, meaning that people can read about three Romeo and Juliets at once, but also that that the reason things start with All’s Well and finish with The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with the live, lived experience of the 2012 festival itself). What I suppose is most significant about all this is not what the book does to the essays themselves, but rather what it does for our apprehension of them. It creates a story out of them that we can follow, even if we know that story is largely imposed. The website on the other hand creates a landscape out of them that we are free to explore, but that we can also get easily lost in.

The final thing that’s worth mentioning is that, at least for our project, the physical book has proven more durable than the digital website. While the book took longer to generate, once it arrived it hasn’t changed. The website on the other hand was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with two PhD students to archive the site for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives and collections (the World Shakespeare Festival was produced by the RSC). Led by specialists at the SBT, our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly. Call it naivety, but I didn’t fully appreciate how present a blog could be in the moment, but how ephemeral it might prove a few years into the future.

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Year of Shakespeare: the archive

The question for me, then, is the extent to which these differences are intrinsic and the extent to which they will fade with time. I have no doubt, for instance, that a website could be preserved just as well as a book by someone who was more diligent, and more technically skilled, than me. But what about the academic status of digital publishing, or the potentially divided audiences for digital and analogue publishing platforms? Will these distinctions become less visible with every year? Most significantly, what about the way digital and analogue forms and formats shape our ability to understand and interpret the contents they hold? If this changes too, then it may very well be us, as psychological and social entities, that are the main things being changed.

So — many thoughts, and all within reading of the first 7 pages of Carson and Kirwan’s introduction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 250 hold, and so I move into part one of its sequenced, structured conversation, flipping its physical pages as I go.

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