Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bookshops I have known

When I was in Ireland last weekend, I took this photograph. Eason's, in case anyone doesn't know, is an Irish institution. It was founded in the early nineteenth century, and has been trading under its current name since 1886. It's a bookshop, newsagent and stationer's, not unlike W. H. Smith's in England, though the flagshop branches in Belfast and Dublin are more comparable to a good Waterstone's. The other branches vary in quality and character.

What you see in the photograph was my own local branch of Eason's when I was growing up. It's very much at the 'newsagent and stationer's' end of the spectrum, but nonetheless was the only bookshop for miles around in those days (and indeed still is). This is where I bought, or had bought for me, my Enid Blytons, my E. Nesbits, my Joan Lingards. Later, it was where I bought my first Orwells and Brian Moores.

Since those days, of course, the process of buying books has changed greatly. I tend to buy most of my books nowadays from Amazon or ABE. Many books, as we know, are also now available online; but I've blogged on Olia about the intellectual problems associated with, for instance, the texts supplied by Project Gutenberg. Quality control is still an issue with electronic texts, as it is with so much on the Web. A book that can be obtained quickly and easily online may please students who are short of cash, but may be very shaky on textual grounds. Also -- a point that carries more conviction with students -- it is likely to be unannotated, which may leave them at a loss with some of the literary and cultural references.

Did I buy a book in Eason's last Saturday? Yes, of course I did: Q and A by Vikas Swarup -- the book on which Slumdog Millionaire is based. I doubt I'll catch the film in the cinema, but it's just possible I'll have read the book before the DVD comes out.


  1. I've just realised that your point about quality control with electronic texts is the perfect argument for increased academic involvement in the blogosphere :-)

  2. I agree in principle, Bill, but I'm a bit less clear how this would actually help in practice. It's not going to achieve much if people like me just grumble on the sidelines about Project Gutenberg. And in any case, Project Gutenberg does have many things going for it; I used it myself last weekend when hunting for some Shakespeare text.

    Electronic editing, of course, offers all sorts of possibilities for textual production and display. One of the texts I've published on is Samuel Daniel's historical epic, The Civil Wars (1595-1609). There are four published versions of The Civil Wars, all different, as well as two extant manuscripts. No traditional hard-copy edition will be able to do full justice to the huge numbers of changes that Daniel introduced from edition to edition; the format just doesn't allow it. But an electronic edition could go a very long way towards allowing readers to see, with a few clicks of the mouse, both the large- and small-scale changes between MS and print, or between 1595 and 1609. For sad textualists like me, this would be very valuable.

    I would love to see such an edition, but it would take time, money and astonishing amounts of work. I'm not at all convinced that funding bodies would be likely to think Samuel Daniel was worth it. And were an electronic edition of The Civil Wars ever produced, it would almost certainly have to be a chargeable resource. Not very very accessible -- and not very Web 2.0!

  3. Very easy to realise, as Wikipedia has the same facilities: you can easily look at previous revisions of articles, and see changes highlighted.

    Maybe there would be scope for research funding here? Explore the feasibility of using a wiki for tracking/displaying changes in historic manuscripts?