Friday, August 12, 2016

Computers, Wood, and Textual Studies

     Of course nothing I know about textual studies required that I learn it from computer programming or woodworking, but some of us are slow learners or learn inadvertently from seemingly unrelated events.
     In 1976 I managed to get funding from the NEH for an edition of William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis, an 800plus page serialized Victorian novel.  Tucked into the grant proposal was a request for funding the development of a computer collation program.  It was to be built on a prototype that had been developed by Susan Follet, a computer science MA student, under the joint direction of Edwin Ellis, professor of computer science, and Miriam Shillingsburg, professor of English.  Their work was based on earlier prototypes by Margaret S. Cabannis and Penny Gilbert.  So, in 1976, I began working with Russell Kegley, another MA student in computer science, meeting with him all day every Friday for nearly an academic year.  The end result, CASE (Computer Assisted Scholarly Editing) was a suite of nine programs that enabled collation, manipulation and merging of collation results, manipulation of diplomatic transcriptions, printing of alterations in manuscripts, textual apparatus tables, and computer typeset edited texts.  But the process, not the product, was what taught me what I had failed to learn in the normal course of training and practice in textual studies.  It is that in my line of work it was easy to fool one’s self into believing one was being careful, thorough, and conclusive.  When one has to explain to a computer (by way of a programmer who writes the explanation as instructions in a programming language so that a machine will do what is required), when I had to explain with such clarity what needed to be done so that the instructions could be written in a yes/ no, off /on, if/else form, then I discovered that in the humanities, there is normally nothing to stop us from fudging the little stuff, allowing guestimates and plausible speculations to influence our results.  When applying the unforgiving precision of computing to my process, the result of every fudge and every speculative guess was a jammed program or an endless loop.   Computer science--or at least programming--teaches attention to detail and the need to discover that which would otherwise be swept under the rug.
     The real results of that year of working with Russell Kegley was not the suite of programs, CASE, which went on to be used in preparing print editions of Thackeray, Irving, Carlyle, Dickens, Hardy, and other works, using forms of CASE developed for Univacs, Dec10, IBM mainframes, Macs, PCs, and laptops in a variety of languages from PL1, EBCDIC, Pascal, TurboPascal, and C, for various operating systems including Linux.  That was pretty satisfying, but not the main deal for me.  Nor was it the scholarly edition of Pendennis which I was able to use to support grant proposals that led to the production of nine other volumes in the Thackeray edition, which was also satisfying.  The main product of that initial grant was my comeuppance in discovering that my hatred of error and my attempts to pay attention to detail could be thwarted by a computer.  My first reaction, of course, was to blame the idiot machine that would do only what it was instructed to do.  That, of course, gave way to the realization that it was an idiot that was instructing the computer to do idiotic things.  Humbling and, eventually, enabling.  The lesson underlies the most useful thing I have done as a result of having undertaken textual studies, the writing and publishing of three editions of Scholarly Editing in the Computing Age (SECA, for short).   I have written other books, but SECA is the only one that has led perfect strangers to come up to me and tell me how helpful that book was to their own journey in textual studies.
    That brings me to woodworking, which I have taken up in a more or less serious way since I retired in 2013.   I already had a forest of hardwood trees in the steep mountains of western North Carolina, and I had acquired chainsaws, a tractor with a logging winch, a heavy duty pickup truck, and a variety of woodworking tools.  Weather causes trees to fall in the woods, where they rot, unless someone cuts them up for firewood or drags them out and takes them to a mill to be made into lumber.   That kind of work is so rough that one has to make a big mistake for it to be noticed.  If the mistake is big enough, one does not live to tell the tale.   Once the boards are cut, and air dried, and kiln dried, and planed, they can be made into floors, or tables and benches, or cabinets, or bat houses, or anything you can think of that is made of hardwoods, like maple, oak, cherry, or hickory.   My son raised my woodworking game to a new level when he bought me some new tools in exchange for giving his son a week of carpentry camp.  Table saws, radial arm saws, band saws, planers, drill presses and lathes are great for concentrating the attention of 9 and 10 year old children, but I have also found that my grandchildren’s parents and even former graduate students love carpentry camp.  Not to be outdone, another son gave me a jointer in exchange for a promise of a new desk made of hickory wood, which he and I found in the woods and dragged out together with the help of his wife and three of his children and two of my dogs--and of course the tractor and winch.
     It was in building the desk that I discovered another truth or principle important in textual studies.   Because the jointer was expensive, I had to make the desk perfect.  Time and effort would just have to be spent to make things right.  Error could not be tolerated.  Error would destroy the aim of making a product that I could be proud of and that would not embarrass my son.  The harder I worked to remove the imperfections of my work, the more obvious the little flaws became.  When one uses rough sandpaper to get rid of obvious nicks and irregularities caused by rough power tools, the more little nicks start showing up.  The finer the grain of sandpaper, the clearer and more abundant the tiny flaws become.
      My father once told me that the word “sincere” came from carpentry.   Carpenters, it seems, have from time immemorial used wax or some such substance to fill in the nicks and crannies that are too difficult to sand away.   The Latin word for wax, ceram, combined with the word for without, creates sincere, without wax.  Let me tell you.  It takes a lot of work to be sincere.
      In fact it is so hard to be sincere in carpentry that it reminds of nothing more than how hard it was to be sincere in textual studies.   To be sincere means not to pretend to anything other than what you have done.   Either you use wax or some other substance to fudge your product and hope no one notices or you work hard enough to not need wax or any other substance OR you come to the realization that you cannot produce a perfect product.
      I began by saying that some of us are slow learners.  I now realize that this certainty of imperfection was well understood in textual studies long before I came along.  And yet not all students of texts, not even scholarly editors, have leaned how to deal with the inevitability of imperfection.  The idea that one can produce an edition that will never have to be done again is a holy grail, tempting untold number of Jasons in the field.  But the old masters already knew.  They called their editions Critical Editions.  Some hopeful fool coined the word Definitive Edition, but that did not last long.  Textual scholars tend, on the whole, to be honest people--hopeful always, naive, sometimes, but mostly honest.  No one claims to have produced the perfect critical article that will end the need for new critical articles.  That would be laughable.  Critics can do seminal work, but they cannot do terminal work.  Likewise, textual critics and scholarly editors can bring high levels of sophistication and skill to their work; they can be innovative and exciting; but they cannot produce a definitive edition that will make all other editions unnecessary or passe.  That is equally laughable.
       My son’s desk is imperfect.  I told him I would build a replacement desk.  In the meantime, he put the imperfect desk in his home office.  The first person who came to his house to do business offered to buy it.  But it is not good enough.   Neither is that edition you just finished producing.  Learn to live with it.