Monday, March 09, 2009

Classic Texts Online

As a preface, let's time-warp back to an earlier post:

A colleague writes:

How do you encourage students to read the entire novel online?

I don't.

While I encourage reading online, in no way do I ever discourage reading real paper books. As I've written before, it's not paper I'm against -- it's a paper-knowledge mentality I'm in opposition to.

This is an important thing to keep in mind as you go paperless: never EVER discourage students (or anybody, for that matter) from reading ANYTHING... be it a magazine or a tattered paperback or their Kindle. Going paperless is not about being an anti-paper dogmatist; it's about thinking about what's printed on the paper in a fresh way.

Back in college, I took a course called 'European Culture in the Middle Ages' with Jan Ziolkowski. As I think back to that class, one thing stands out in my mind more than any other. And that was just an offhand remark by the professor that Internet publishing actually had a lot in common with publishing in the Middle Ages from a certain point-of-view. For one thing, in the same way that the monastic redactors of Medieval texts copied by hand and thus also often made errors or added/cut information from the original texts, likewise Internet additions of texts are subject to a cut-and-paste idiom that can drastically alter the meaning of a given text.

Now, while some people will immediately point to this as one of the banes of the Internet, I see it actually as a great opportunity. Because variance in text forces us to look more closely at what we are reading. This is not something new to human experience: after all, we have variants even of the introduction to the Iliad which is certainly the most canonical of early Western texts.

In a way, the human element in the manuscript tradition of the Middle Ages as well as the Internet tradition of the Digital Age stands in stark contrast to the relatively novel era of printing that dominated from Gutenberg to the late 1990's. Novel in that it was the only time in human history that the human hand was virtually erased from the process of reproduction. There is no better example of this than the rise of the printed newspaper in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

But all of that is preface concerning the ways in which we think about text online. In fact, the best edited texts online are every bit as 'authoritative' as their paper counterparts. So rather than debate the merits of paperless books, I'd rather present here four annotated resources for teachers looking to incorporate paperless text options into their classrooms.

First is the 'Complete Works of Shakespeare' published online by MIT. In the current condition of the Internet (where scrolling remains unfortunately the way of the world), this is admittedly a clumsy site. That said, each text is broken down into relatively manageable series of chunked acts or poems. As an admitted lover of all things Shake-scene, I have used this site in the classroom as a quick way to spontaneously get some of the Bard up on my wall whenever the occasion arises. Having the plays chunked into titled scenes helps you get to the lines you are looking for quickly and with ease.

Second is the Latin Library, a project of Ad Fontes Academy. This is a laudable digital collection of Latin texts ranging from the oldest works of Ennius and Plautus straight up through Renaissance texts and on into the contemporary period with Latin translations of the Bill of Rights and Alice in Wonderland. While there are neither glossaries nor critical apparatus supplied, the texts themselves are in beautiful condition (check out the illustrations in Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius!)...

We've talked here about the Open Library Project before, and I really do think it's one of the most exciting things on the Web. Just the new take on viewing text online -- that is, by actually flipping through a scanned book rather than scrolling pages of web-text -- is a pleasure for the eyes. Here's an example from a 1904 edition of the Works of Poe. A friend of mine just showed me a new app for the iPhone that does the same thing with the advantage of being able to use your fingers to turn the pages (yes, I realize that makes the whole endeavor seem arbitrary and dorky: "You can even turn the pages with your fingers!", but in the long run, as this technology settles in we'll hopefully see SmartPaper alternatives that are as comfortable and familiar as paper itself -- with the advantage of being connected, highly interactive, and searchable.)

Lastly, take a look at Project Gutenberg. This is an enormous database of public domain texts in several languages -- which incidentally opens the door for teachers of modern foreign languages as well. And to those of you worried that technology is going to tear us away from our humanistic roots, just take a look at the top ten authors (out of over a half-million books downloaded just last week alone): Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Thomson, Jules Verne, P.L. Jacob, Oscar Wilde, and Lewis Carroll. Looks like the kids ARE alright, after all.

For the classroom teacher, the greatest benefit of online texts is the immediacy. There is little excuse for not being able to pull up a text at will; which certainly makes somewhat daunting tasks, like teaching The Waste Land, a bit more commensurate with the practicalities of the classroom experience. In addition, students in a 1:1 setting have at their fingers all of the resources of scholarship and journalism; they therefore have no excuse for letting anything slide. Used with vigor, online texts produce a wealth of dividends for far less financial cost and space consideration than an equivalent traditional library.

In a way, 'paperless' should not be thought of as the 'alternative' to paper; but rather, for the time-being, an auxilary and connected form of text-experience. That connection is what is most attractive to me as a teacher. And unlike the similarities to Medieval book production as we discussed above, the connection is global, democratic, and immediate.

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