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 Amazon.ca in print, but the Kindle edition on Amazon.com 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.

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.