End of the year review: sort of

Maybe it’s just the people I’m around on social media, but it seems like nearly everyone was ending 2019 and/or starting 2020 with goals concerning reading, nearly always in the form of a goal number of books to be read or finish reading. Take Goodreads: it’s an easy way to keep track of what you want to and already have and are currently reading. It’s also pretty good for helping decide if a book is something you might want to add to your reading list, with the reviews. And it lets you do all this in public, in front of everyone you know via digital stuff. I’m reasonably sure you can’t turn off the feature that sends you an email every time you list another book as “Read”, although you can turn off or block the daily notices about what your friends are reading, adding, or finishing. So one question this all brings up is something of a paradox: reading is largely a solitary activity, and yet it has become a fairly public performance. The question then is how much of this is due to the oversharing/bragging/trolling (frequently anonymous) opportunities offered by social media, or how much of it is something else?

What strikes me is how much this resembles medieval practices in some ways. Books, or at least the contents of books, essentially were a form of social media, they were a prestige item, they had social and solitary aspects to them, and people had opinions about them. Books also existed in multiple formats, much as they do now, although obviously some of the forms themselves have changed.

Take audio books for example. I’ve never really been able to get into this method of experiencing books, but it is quite popular. Back in the Middle Ages, this way actually how a lot of people would experience books. The origins of the term “lecture” comes from the Latin for “to read”, and that’s how higher levels of education were often provided. The instructor would read from the lone copy of the textbook, and possibly commentate, while the students took notes. In some cases students could copy out their own versions of the book, but this would need to be done by hand, either by themselves or someone they paid. There are also records of medieval monasteries that indicate that it was a practice to have someone reading from scripture or other religious text while everyone else was eating.

Certain forms of ebooks also have medieval analogues or at least general comparisons. On several online platforms, including GoogleBooks, you don’t flip through the pages, you scroll. The modern book through which one flips or turns pages is a descendant of the codex, while the scroll through counterpart is the much older roll or scroll. You read as you unroll and re-roll. There’s actually an older hilarious video called “Medieval Helpdesk” (you can find it subtitled on Youtube, since it was originally done in Norwegian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQHX-SjgQvQ) that makes the very real suggestion that, at one time, the book in the shape that it’s now most commonly known for was a revolutionary thing.

Books had a social function much as they do now as well, especially if you follow platforms like the above mentioned Goodreads. People would leave comments in the margins containing critiques, comments, and sometimes even discussion threads. One of my favorite examples is from the Devonshire Manuscript (British Library Additional 17492). This book was originally passed around a group of lady friends at Henry VIII’s court, and one page has a poem composed by a gentleman hoping to court one of the ladies. Here is Cynthia Roger’s description of the thread:

Poem 8 on fols. 6v-7r is a declaration of love to Mary Shelton from one of her admirers. The first letter of each stanza spells out her last name. She seems to have known the author, as she writes a tart reply to his poem just below it— “Undesired service, requires no hire (payment).” Margaret Douglas seems to have also known the author and the fact that her friend was rejecting him, as she writes out to the side of this poem, “Forget this.” Mary, being a little more charitable, writes underneath Margaret’s comment, “It is worthy.”

Manuscripts like this also show people sharing favorite bits of text, much in the way we might now retweet or share a post we particularly enjoyed or wanted to share, and many such examples still survive.

Reading in the Middle Ages and beyond was commonly a public activity. In times before the printing press and better sources and methods of production came along, books were not something readily available. So, in this time which was also before modern forms of entertainment like television and streaming, people might get together and read to each other.  We get a look at this even in stories, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. After Pandarus has agreed to help Troilus win Criseyde’s affections, he goes off to find her, and he finds her and two companions listening to a fourth lady reading out loud:

Whan he was come vnto his Neces place,

“Wher is my lady?” to hire folk quod he;

And they hym tolde and he forth in gan pace

And fond two othere ladys sete, and she,

With-inne a paued parlour, and they thre

Herden a mayden reden hem the geste

Of the siege of Thebes while hem leste.      (II.78-84)

 

Reading could also still be a private activity in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, especially when it came to producing and collecting books. The anonymous writer of the lyric “Pangur Ban” for example describes a scene in which the monk studies alone, while his cat pays attention to the mice. Such scenes of personal solitary reading or study also show up in a lot of dream visions, like the introductions of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Foules. Many medieval books that still survive come to us from private collections gathered during the Early Modern period and later, and possessing such a personal or private library would have been a sign of wealth or prestige, or in other words, something only a few people could or did do.

Bookmaking was itself both a solitary and group activity. A monastery scriptorium for example was a public space used by many, but each copyist or artist was largely working alone on his part of the book.

Finally, the reviews. In addition to marginalia, medieval versions of reviews and trolls and fan fiction still survive, even in highly respected literary works. Gower and Chaucer and Lydgate all participated in such activities. Towards the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes a dedication to “moral Gower” a label which stuck and has been taken as a slight insult towards his acquaintance and possibly friend. Lydgate frames his Siege of Thebes as an additional Canterbury Tale. While it’s not possible to definitively prove Chaucer’s intention in his remark about Gower, it has long been taken as snarky in a way that might pass for light-hearted trolling. It is possible to prove Lydgate’s fan-fiction though since Lydgate directly places himself within the frame of the Canterbury Tales, and he wrote admiringly of Chaucer in other works, such as The Fall of Princes.

There is a good deal of serious research and scholarship that has been done on reading as practice and what it meant culturally in medieval Europe, not to mention a good deal of modern scientific work on how the human brain may have evolved or adapted to/for reading and how it manages what appear to be several complex simultaneous processes that need to happen in order for reading to be done. While I’m not touching much on those details here, it is worth realizing that the idea of reading as well as the practice is far more complicated than most people realize. It’s something worth thinking about, even if only in terms of personal practice.

The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.