The inherently authoritative book

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?


4 thoughts on “The inherently authoritative book

  1. Over break, a friend of mine was actually talking to me about that fact with de Beauvoir — that in English her text was originally translated and published as some kind of science text rather than a philosophical book. Specifically, this was in the context of de Beauvoir’s reception in this country, and the fact that Sartre always insisted she was a better philosopher than he was. My friend’s point was that because of the oddity of this initial translation (as you note, it wasn’t given a better translation until recently) it was impossible for English readers to really read her as a philosopher, so Sartre’s claim had always just seemed like just some weird thing he’d said, possibly out of chivalry, but not something that could be taken seriously as a meaningful assessment of her. And you’re right, it is on some level a little disturbing to realize how much of an impact a translation can have on our understanding of a text (or in this case, how the mis-identification of the genre of a work can so fundamentally affect both the way it’s translated and how it’s read — almost making it a matter of something even beyond the issue of textual accuracy). But I still think Johns is basically right — when we trust texts, we’re really trusting a culture and a system of publication that these days places a high degree of importance on accuracy, and while it’s certainly not infallible, it’s also pretty remarkably good if we compare it to earlier practice.

  2. This is something that I was really interested in too! How is it that we just take things that are printed as true? I discussed this a little in my blog as well, not so much focusing on literature but on thing like email or even a text. If it’s in some form of writing or print it’s more real. I thought it was also relevant considered against Ong’s explanation of the mistrust of writing and print when the technologies were originally introduced (which John’s discusses also) and a preference to speech over writing.

  3. These are great examples of the problem in granting print too much authority. I think we actually more prone to trust books in the age of the Internet. We KNOW (or presume) that Wikipedia is faulty; should we then assume that the print Britannica is the Word on High?

    The issue of editions is even more relevant in the age of ebooks, and can be a problem in the classroom. A student with a kindle is likely to get the cheapest, often free edition of older texts. These are often based on problematic sources (fast reprints by 19th century publishers) and can be missing prefatory materials and as you point out, paragraphs or even pages from the original. It makes one appreciate the amount of work a good editor must do, even if we eschew the concept of the “authoritative text” as an impossible ideal.

  4. This reminds me of the debates over the variances found in the different transmissions of the Bible. A friend of mine had read a book by Bart Ehrman (a New Testament textual scholar) or watched a clip of one of his talks and was completely thrown by the idea that the last few or several verses of the Gospel of Mark were considered an interpolation because they weren’t found in any of the earlier manuscripts. (The loss of textual authority in this case had some interesting life-changing consequences for her.) In one of the other blogs someone brought up the notion of permanence that is attributed to print and that seems to give the text this authoritative appearance, and I tend to agree with that. There is something about seeing words in print that gives off a “this is what it is” aura, at least in terms of what I perceive an author’s mindset to be in their writing.

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