On printed books and manuscripts

For the next few weeks I’m taking time out in between projects. I don’t have quite the fury of deadlines (only two deadlines this weekend, in fact) and things will pick up again around mid-December, so I’m working very hard then reading and seeing friends and pretending I am normal.

Harry Hartog (the bookshop) has ‘blind dates’ with books. You buy a book in a brown paper wrapper. The wrapper tells the the genre and gives you a couple of keywords about the content. Each of these is carefully selected by one of the staff members: they’re not the books that won’t sell, they’re the books we will enjoy. It’s a lot of fun. You get to untie the ribbon and to rip open the paper and to discover the joy of a new book inside. I bought one for today’s break. It said “YA fantasy”, and “libraries” and “darkness”. it sounded good and so I willed my finances to the third frozen hell and bought it.

It’s Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone and it’s very good. I have two problems with it, though, and they’re both niggly and probably annoying only to me.

The first is that she didn’t do quite enough Latin and so half her Latin tags demand that I reach for a red pen. She might have a masculine agreement with a feminine noun, or she puts the verb in the wrong place. The Latin is not over-used, but it’s critical to the world building. There doesn’t seem to be any explanation for the forms, which is a shame, for she could easily have said that it was the Latin of the Library and had someone scold another for Classical usage. In other words, there’s an intellectual way out and she doesn’t use it and so every time the Latin is worrying, I get thrown out of the book. (And might as well be Greek, not Latin, given the book’s premise, and that would be better for me, because I lack Greek.)

The other thing that bugs me is cultural.

Her whole world is posited on the assumption of unique volumes, handwritten. It’s a lovely idea. It should be a perfect idea except… she’s obviously not worked enough with manuscripts. She assigns them the same lack of individuality as printed volumes and their uniqueness is ignored.

This makes sense for part of her world build, for there are reasons for the uniqueness to be ignored (there is a form of photocopying, so manuscripts can be precisely duplicated) but it makes no sense when someone announces that there’s a copy of that book already in the Library. When one is talking manuscripts, even if the title and the context is the same, one can never assume that they’re exact copies. In fact, it takes special training to achieve exact copies.

If the whole world is based on manuscript (which it is) then this essential quality they have is terribly, terribly important. You can have one hundred and forty two copies of a book and each one will read a bit differently. This is why I (and so many others) have learned to do stemmas and to work out manuscripts’ relationship to each other.

I hope that this is a lapse by the characters and that she doesn’t fall into the error of considering all books the same as the books we use everyday. If she has fallen into that error, that will make problems for her world-of-the-book and those problems will compound in later volumes. To give a modern model, it would be the difference between three collected bunches of diary entries of Anne Frank, copied by hand to smuggle them out. Some of the entries might be duplicated, but you don’t know until you check if the whole is an exact copy. If they all are the same entry, they might differ in content: Anne’s father may have edited some, to show his daughter in his preferred light, or Anne’s misspelling might have been silently corrected in her earlier entries where she was younger and less knowledgeable. The headings could be the same and the content could be mostly the same, but each volume might have critical differences. It’s only when scholars compare those differences that we understand the book.

In other words, with handwritten volumes, the codex one is looking at may not be the book. The book may be lost and the codex may be a copy, or the book may be a composite, or it may be edited and have the thoughts of others in it, or someone might have left off two lines and made a nonsense of it. With manuscripts, you get a whole new set of insights when different versions are compared. (with different versions of the same printed work, likewise, but it’s not every book, it’s very group of books.)

To assume that there is one perfect ideal version is wonderfully metaphysical, but it doesn’t reflect what manuscripts actually are.

This is one of those problems that looks nit-picking, but is actually essential to the operation of the world of the novel. It’s not an issue of ‘most readers won’t notice’ (because they won’t, and whether they notice or notice is irrelevant) because it’s fundamental to how the political and social system in the novel operates and also to the basic drive of the plot.

In a world that rests on manuscripts, ignoring their fundamental nature is problematic. The problem’s not about the reader’s knowledge of manuscripts: it’s about the physics-equivalent for the universe. How Caine handles it will make a big difference to whether the whole series remains as good as the first volume.

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