Occasion for this Short Essay: For first-year experience, Kent State University invites students to short session with professor during welcome weekend. The book for summer reading was This I Believe. Because last fall I thought it my responsibility as instructor for course to model the implicit assignment in book—write a This I Believe essay—I wrote and submitted an essay to web site, which has now been published. To my chagrin, my text-style encoding and two or three typos remained. But I retain copyright, so now it’s a fluid text with this update.
I believe that that one way to make life meaningful is to do what you do as well as it can be done. I first heard this idea from a university professor: he suggested that some work that I was doing, editorial work, could be done better. To focus my attention on the consequences, he asked me the following question: “If you wanted to quote the text and you had to be right, would you trust this edition?”
Before he asked, I had considered all sorts of questions about the edition, much as a reader might. I found interesting new words, like “ear-witness.” I read advice on preparing food in the eighteenth century: how to judge produce in the market, how long to cook poultry on a spit over an open fire, how to make a sauce from the yolks of egg. This work was interesting because the text was very rare, and we were basing our edition on a microfilm copy. And the whole process of preparing this edition seemed wonderfully esoteric—like joining a strange club, in which you and perhaps only 10 or 20 people in the world had also read the book, three of whom you knew, and with whom you could share eye-rolls about the writer’s odd tics. When I understood my work as being like specialized reading, a good-faith effort—and we tried very hard to check and double-check—it seemed like the work that we were doing was admirable.
But when the professor asked me whether I would trust the edition, the only answer that I could imagine was “No.” And I’ve decided, as my career, to devote myself to some very slow and tedious work and to do it right, which involves comparing pages in multiple copies of books to see if any part of the page differs, of typing 5 copies of a book of over 600 pages by hand from an original copy, of having another person do the same, of comparing both keyboard transcriptions side-by-side and against an original copy, and of repeating this process over a period of years.
By society’s general standards, and by the standards of some of my colleagues, I am crazy, because the few things that most people know about the writer on which I work, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is that she was not very careful and was very popular—both qualities that are contrary to what marks a work of literature as an artistic achievement. While I believe that doing my work is the right thing to do out of respect to preserving a shared cultural heritage, I fear that I will have difficulty convincing legislators and taxpayers that the humanities pays for its keep.
But it’s the right thing for me. Last summer, I went to the library to check out a book, I was happy to find the one that I wanted on the shelves. I wanted a specific edition, one that I knew was prepared by scholars with scrupulous standards of accuracy, comparable to my own. I don’t want any edition of Hawthorne’s famous short stories in Mosses from an Old Manse. I want the one that, if I quote from it, I can be almost certain it is correct.
When I tried to check out the book, the librarian looked over the book curiously, because it had no bar code. She wouldn’t let me have it without a bar code and asked where I had found it. The library had been recently re-organized to free up space for new library missions, with many books now moved to remote storage. According to her supervisor, who returned after I had been waiting at the counter, the lack of the bar code on that copy meant that no one has checked the book out since the early 1980s.
I work at a research university in a department of English with 30 or so faculty members and over 200 to 300 student majors, a department that was larger in previous decades. So that means that between the 1980s and 2011, no one absolutely needed to be right about a Hawthorne story—else he or she would at least have consulted this copy.
When I finish the edition a few years hence—and the work goes slow because I have another job, to teach undergraduates how to read with greater pleasure and write with greater power—this is what I believe. Somewhere, someone, 30 years hence, a well-informed reader will want to quote Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And that reader will want to be sure that he or she quotes correctly. I offer no guarantee: my work is done by human eyes and hands, so error is unavoidable. But if that reader chooses my edition, my job is to be faithful to the trust that reader has placed in me.