While reading Adrian Johns’ “The Book of Nature and the Nature of the Book,” I was struck by how much trust I place in books. I never question their veracity or authority but instead instinctively accept that what I am reading and/or citing is “true” in the sense that it is an accurate copy of the author’s text. Johns seems to suggest that this is merely reflection of our contemporary culture, that textual accuracy and reliability has become a characteristic of the book over time, even if this was not always the case. Yet I can easily think of two examples that refute the seemingly “self-evident” fact that books are “infallibly reliable” (255).
The first, and I think most disturbing, example is the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Now before I relate this example, I must confess that in terms of reliability or credibility, my knowledge on this topic is largely based on what I was told by a previous professor, Dr. Raymond MacKenzie. However, given that he has translated French texts into English and had no reason to mislead me, I’m going to continue and simply assume his accuracy (as I do with books). According to Dr. MacKenzie, the first, and for decades only, English translation of de Beauvoir’s text was written by a biologist because the publisher, upon reading the title, assumed it was a scientific text. This translator, H. M. Parshley, was rather free in his translation and actually left out entire paragraphs from the original French text. Although there is now a new, more faithful translation available in English (and therefore the textual issues are solved), in terms of having faith in books being translated and/or published, this original inaccurate translation comes across as a type of betrayal. As a reader and scholar, I implicitly trust that the book I am purchasing and reading is accurate and faithful to the original text (as much as possible, in the case of translations). Yet in this instance, my trust was misplaced. However, what I find even more strange is that despite my experience, I still instinctively trust in the authority and reliability of the books I receive.
My second example involves Tennyson’s The Princess. Discussing it in class with students using a variety of editions, it became obvious that changes, although minor, had been made, including the addition of illustrations and changes in punctuation. While changes in punctuation cannot quite compare to deletions of paragraphs, punctuation is still important in textual analysis, especially of a poem. It was only tonight in class that I realized why specific editions of individual texts are used in literary criticism.
Such examples leave me with several questions: Why do I instinctively trust that the book I buy and read is a faithful copy of the original text? Why do I continue to not question the authority of the book even though I have dealt with texts that are inaccurate? How much faith should scholars place in the authority of the books they use? And finally, when did we, as a culture, stop questioning the authority of the printed book?