Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Handwritten Word

Here is an article from Slate magazine about the challenges of deciphering an author's handwriting. Editors usually encounter this challenge when transcribing an author's journals, diaries, and notes. (Make sure to check out the slide show of horrifying handwriting.) Though it may not seem that important whether Henry James signed one of his letters "unutterably" or "unalterably," James, and the other authors mentioned in the article, built their lives around choosing the right word and most editors feel compelled to honor that commitment themselves.

Another reason why editors would pour over the chicken scratches of a dead writer is to create a definitive edition of a work. Printing and copying are never perfect, so the longer a work is copied and, quite often, the more complicated the work is, the more likely it is that errors will creep in. In order to correct these errors scholars and editors will work through the author's notes, manuscripts, and proofs to try and figure out the right word. Again, a mistaken word here and there might not seem like much, but imagine your favorite painting with the wrong hue of green. A mistake at a crucial word could change the meaning of an entire work.

Perhaps the author upon whom the most effort is directed to create a "definitive work" is Shakespeare. Not only were his plays beset by the same copying problems as all the other texts of his time, but they were published in many different versions (four folios and a host of quartos) mostly after his death. And the differences aren't subtle. Often they are differences of a single word, but just as often whole passages are left out (or added in). Because of this, many of the plays have variorums, editions of the plays that show all of the differences between all of the different versions. Which raises the question, what are we reading when we are reading the Hamlet we are reading? And as Hamlet, and all of Shakespeare, is a corner-stone of the western literature canon, what exactly is that canon resting on?

1 comment:

Emily said...

Great entry from he who hath the chicken-scratchiest scribblings of them all. I only hope that I'm not the one who has to decipher your writings after you are famous, canonical, and dead.

Blog Archive