Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format?

While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn’t really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don’t usually mark up fiction I’m reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I’ve started recently, especially for passages I’m trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles’ contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on in print, but the Kindle edition on is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon’s fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I’m pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I’m generally pleased by what I’ve heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

Weekend Reading and Gardening

I haven’t had nearly as much time to read as I would like to this weekend.

I finally finished up the last chapter of Harperland, so I could return it to the library. Again, if you’re interested in politics, you really should give it a shot. I’ve primarily been focusing on my course readings. I’ve been giving chapter 7 “Phaeacia’s Halls and Gardens” in The Odyssey a close reading, in particular the hospitality scene as Odysseus becomes a guest of the mythic Phaeacians. There’s a lot going on in this scene, but I won’t be posting it right now, as I plan to write an essay on this chapter. I’m continually amazed by how layered this book is, and in particular the non-linear plot progression.

I’ve also been reading more of Batty and Cain’s Media Writing, particularly the chapter on magazine writing. It’s brought to mind some of the techniques used in some of the magazines I’ve picked up recently. Magazines have a much longer lead time than newspaper writing, which is certainly exhibited in Volume 22 number 1. Anuual 2011 issue of Canadian Gardening. The article “Seasons of Love” written by Yvonne Cunnington clearly shows the long term nature of some of these articles. The author of this article shows how landscapes and gardens can be planted in order to best suit the varying seasons. Along with the text, photographs (taken by Donna Griffith) show several locations through the four seasons, so the choice of plants can be seen through the seasons, providing interest year round. It’s an effective article, especially for publication during the winter months. As I look to my snowy backyard, then back to the pages of the magazine, I can’t help but draw some bleak conclusions. These gardeners spend a lot more time and effort on their gardens than I do.


Ancient Writing and the Odyssey

How are texts passed down through history? In my English 301H class, we’re studying a modern english translation of The Odyssey, by Homer. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Odyssey and the Iliad were both composed some five hundred years before the alphabet was developed and became used in ancient Greece. Five hundred years of oral recitation and recomposition passed before the poem was codified in writing.

How are texts transmitted and recomposed through time? While I have mentioned the recent edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how some of the language has changed, the question itself dates back much further, to the time of the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Academic scholars today believe that the sack of Troy was a historical event, which took place around 1300BCE, roughly five hundred years before the Phoeneicians introduced the alphabet to ancient Greece.

There are several theories about how the version written down came to be. The Odyssey’s complex structure was originally thought by scholars to have been formed during the recording of the poem into writing. Newer theories suggest instead that the complex structure would have aided the bards in the recitation of the poem, as a form of mnemonic. This theory suggests that the Odyssey was not recited word for word, but re-composed from a common template, every recitation a new work of art. As the recorded version contains over twelve thousand lines of poetry, I can easily see how the composition of the poem during recitation, based on a structured skeleton could be preferable to the rote memorization of a lengthy poem.

I don’t know how many times it was edited after being first committed to written words, but there are signs that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus commissioned a revision of Homer’s works, from 546-524 BCE. This is presumably the source of the “canonical” Greek text of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The further heritage of the text is interesting, when one looks at the number of texts which use Odysseus and his journeys as the source for further writings. The Romans called him Ulysses, and portrayed him as a villain. Odysseus appears in Dante’s Inferno, and James Joyce’s Ulysses has many things in common with the voyages of Odysseus.

Classes start again

It feels as if I just handed in my final paper for last term, but it appears that classes start this week.

This term I’m taking English 408A – Writing for the Media, and English 301H – Honours Literary Studies. 408A is being taught by Andrew Deman, while 301H is being taught by Murray McArthur. I haven’t yet had McArthur for any courses, so that should be interesting.

The course texts look interesting. I’ve scanned through the first chapter of Batty and Cain’s “Media Writing: A Practical Introduction,” and it seems to be an actually useful textbook, which is a pleasant change from some other courses I’ve had. I haven’t yet read any of the companion text for 408A, Jenkins’ “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide” but it seems to contrast nicely with “Media Writing,” with more of a focus on non-traditional media. Page one includes an image from “Bert is Evil” with Bert from Sesame Street fame posed next to Osama Bin Laden.

For 301H, the major literary text being studied is The Odyssey, by Homer. The particular translation is by the late Robert Fagles, which is presumably a modern translation into more modern language than others, while still maintaining fidelity to the greek text. Along with Ulysses, the course readings include excerpts from Aescylus’ Agamemnon, Canto 26 from Dante’s Inferno, the Telemachus, Calypso, and Lotus Eaters chapters from Joyce’s Ulysses (not surprising, as McArthur is a Joyce scholar), and finally, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this course. The calendar description merely states that through lectures, discussion, and presentations by visiting faculty, this course provides Honours students with an enriched survey of the discipline of literary studies. Topics of discussion will be drawn from bibliography and research methods, critical approaches to literature, literary history, genre studies, rhetoric, media perspectives, and other areas of scholarly interest. This seems to me to be rather vague, and from what I can tell, each offering of this course tends to be rather different.

The course syllabus for 408A states that This course examines the genres and strategies of both journalism and public relations. With a strong orientation towards rhetorical and linguistic theories, this course will cover audience concerns from both within and outside organizations. While this is perhaps a shorter description, it is also far more concrete in nature. I fully expect a number of written assignments on a regular schedule in this course.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this term progresses. Hopefully I haven’t signed up for more than I can comfortably handle. I just need to make sure that I carefully manage my time this term, something much easier said than done. My toddler turns three at the end of the term.

Holiday Books

Books I received over the holidays include include:

  • Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader. Edited by Mike Ashley
  • The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  • Media Writing: A Practical Introduction by Craig Batty and Sandra Cain
  • After Theory by Terry Eagleton
  • Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins
  • Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

I’m really looking forward to the Steampunk books, especially the anthology put together by the VanderMeers. My copy of their previous steampunk anthology is well worn, and has a lovely hand-drawn zeppelin drawn by Ann at the 2010 Montreal WorldCon.

The Media writing and Convergence Culture texts are for a course I’ll be taking in January on writing for the media. The course sounds interesting, and the regular written exercises should be good practice, thinking about writing in a different fashion.

Previous to Christmas, I picked up a few other books:

  • Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Stephen Jones
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
  • Mythologies by Barthes
  • Empire of Signs by Barthes
  • How We Became Posthuman, by N. Katherine Hayles
  • Terminal Identity: the Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction by Scott Bukatman
  • Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster
  • Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
  • Nothing Rhymes With Orange: Perfect Words for Poets, Songwriters, and Rhymers, by Bessie G. Redfield and Hope Vestergaard
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding

I’ve finished Dreadnought already, which is a brilliant sequel to Boneshaker. It’s a stronger novel than the first, and has a much cleaner narration. To be reviewed shortly.

The Necronomicon is a wonderful black faux-leather trade paperback. I’ve not previously read much of Lovecraft. From the few short stories I’ve managed out if this text so far, his writing drips atmosphere, although the serial nature of many of his longer stories adds a great deal of repetition.