The Readerly Edition: Introduction
The Tales of the Peries manuscript presented in this website is a copy that that Mordaunt Ricketts did of John Leyden’s translation of an ancient Persian tale. The manuscript’s original text has portions where the readability is extremely poor mainly due to the lack of any punctuation or paragraph breaks. Thus, we have modernized the text in the readerly edition in a manner suitable for a digital exhibit.
Within the field of textual criticism, scholars often search for the copy-text of any work which should most accurately represent the author’s intentions. These can be divided into two broad categories: accidentals and substantives. Accidentals are things such as spelling and punctuation, which only affected a text’s formal presentation, while substantives are parts that affect an author’s meaning or essence of expression.
In his seminal essay “The Rationale of Copy Text,” Walter Greg argued that one should use the author’s original manuscript as the basis for accidentals, but rely on later versions if necessary for possible corrections to the substantives. This view has reigned dominant for most of the 20th century. 1
Jerome McGann, though, would later challenge this view by arguing that the ideal copy-text might never even exist because there is no such thing as a final authorial intent. The critical edition should aim to be a historical edition that should try to incorporate the entire development cycle of any work. 2
McGann’s views are especially relevant in the context of the Tales of the Peries. For one, it is difficult for one to ascertain the authorial intent that one should try to preserve – it is quite obvious that Ricketts’ contribution is quite minor, but should one attempt to focus on the substantives of Leyden’s translation or this unknown Persian tale? Constructing a critical edition for the manuscript is further complicated by the fact that the only source of accidentals is from Ricketts’ transcription. Finally, because there is only one manuscript, it is quite difficult to ascertain how much the substantive and accidental portions of the text are linked to each other. Given the difficulties of producing a single authoritative version of the text, it was decided that digital interfaces can be harnessed to produce multiple versions that can provide a much better critical context for a reader.
Before discussing the new tools that digital interfaces can offer to an editor, it would be helpful to understand why critical editions and textual criticism were necessary in the first place. Although editors can certainly dodge substantial responsibility by reprinting works, it would be difficult to argue that any long work that has had more than one version has not accrued changes and corruptions that should be at least annotated if not changed. As soon as the editor undergoes action, though, critical scholarship must be employed and editorial changes must be explained. These editorial notes include things such as notes regarding other critical editions, significant alterations of the copy-text, and numerous other forms of textual machinery. Given that critical editions are often of complex literary pieces that have a rich history, potential editorial notes quickly multiply and no single book can realistically discuss all possible concerns. Hence, textual criticism has served as a foundation upon which critical editions can appeal to if simply only for practicality.
McGann commented upon this by arguing that critical editions become increasingly difficult to use as scholarship behind its target text grows mainly because one is attempting to “deploy a book form to study another book form.” With electronic archives or websites, however, a reader can easily access a wide array of documents as well as multiple versions of a text. Facsimile editions no longer become expensive to produce and readers are given access to scholarly tools that would otherwise be impossible if the critical edition was restricted to just paper. The Peries project serves as a perfect illustration of the advantages that hypertext confers upon editors seeking to create a fully fleshed out critical edition. 3
With the readerly edition of the Tales of the Peries, the use of electronic media allowed the editors to have different priorities from that of editors working with a print form. Substantial changes in accidentals were already required given the lack of any punctuation or formatting for large stretches of the manuscript – the main question was whether the readerly edition should aim for a minimum level of readability or something much more. Because readers would also have access to a facsimile of the original manuscript as well as a strict transcription, it seemed to not make sense to sacrifice ease of read in order to preserve the original accidentals. As mentioned previously, it is difficult to ascertain whether changes in these accidentals result in substantive alternations as well, but, again, access to the original text allows the inquiring reader to make his or her own conclusion. That being said, the readerly edition was not intended to alter the substantives so readers will hopefully not often have to refer to the two other versions of the text.
This digital project also offers significant assistance to interpretations of the substantives through other projects. The project detailing Leyden’s life, travels, and works helps to shed light onto portions of the translation that may experience leakage from his personal experience. Likewise, the project detailing the culture of ancient Persia can reveal substantives related to the original tale that would otherwise be lost to Western readers. Thus, although there is little direct information regarding the manuscript’s substantives, the historical and personal background should be at least somewhat helpful in providing some hints of them.
The Readerly Edition
1. Greg, Walter. “The Rationale of Copy-Text.” Studies in Bibliography. Vol. 3 (1950): pg. 19-36.
2. McGann, Jerome. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983.
3. McGann, Jerome. “The Rationale of HyperText.” Investigations in Method and Theory. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1997. pg. 19-46.