Blog Post

Reference Works, Poetically

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

Why would anyone read a reference work cover-to-cover? Aren't they designed to be consulted selectively, at need? Isn't that why so many of the old standards--the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Encyclopedia Britannica--have reinvented themselves as searchable web sites?

I've been pondering these questions quite a bit recently. A journal has asked me to write a review essay about the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2013), a major academic undertaking that from-the-ground up reassesses how scholars around the globe think about and define poetry. I happily said yes.

The PEPP, however, is over 1,600 pages. Large, double-columned pages. I'm enjoying myself immensely, and I'm tweeting about my discoveries as I read, but it's slow going. I also keep asking myself whether I've chosen to interact in a hopelessly old-fashioned manner with a mass of information that has been presented in a nearly obsolete format, the codex ("a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar, with hand-written content, usually stacked and bound by fixing one edge and with covers thicker than the sheets").

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Page from vol. 1 of my grandfather's copy of the
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

On a shelf beside my desk sits a 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that once belonged to my grandfather. Inside the front cover of of the first volume he has written two statements: "This Encyclopedia given to Avery H Reed Jr by his father, Avery H Reed Sr, in October, 1949" and "This entire set was read by Avery H Reed Jr 1965-66." In every subsequent volume, he notes the date on which he finished reading it.

As a kid, I often heard about Grandfather's reading the whole encyclopedia. I imagined him sitting down after work at night, randomly pulling a volume of the Britannica off the shelf, and dipping into it, the way people today dilettantishly explore interesting topics online. Only much later did it sink in that, at least once, he read through its twenty-nine volumes in a doggedly sustained, sequential, completist manner.

Why did it he do it? Was it an act of filial piety? A declaration of his commitment to learning? A way to impress family and friends? Did he approach the Britannica as a series of disconnected entries, like a standard newspaper or a magazine in which one presumes no necessary relation between the stories? Or did he seek something more, maybe access to a world view or a body of knowledge shared by, as they put it at Harvard, "the fellowship of educated men and women"?

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One of the most provocative entries in the PEPP is titled "Book, Poetic." The author of the "Medieval and Early Modern" section of the entry, William Kuskin (Univ. Colarado at Boulder), explains that, way back in Antiquity when scrolls were still the primary means of data storage and transmission, codices were only "used for notational writing--drafts, lessons, calculations, and lists--and were, thus, secondary."

Things began to change when "early Christian communities at Antioch and Jerusalem" elevated "the codex from secondary writing aid to a major textual form." They did so, it seems, because a codex, as a bound stack of pages, visually "impl[ies] a unified canon even if the actual texts they contain are only fragmentary" (155). That is, unlike a roll, which requires time and effort to "scroll through," codices can be random-accessed quickly and easily. As a consequence, any given page, passage, or text can stand in for all the others. You could just as readily have flipped to another one instead.

Described in this manner, a codex can sound a little like one of today's searchable databases. Yes and no. Materiality matters. Every word in a codex appears between two covers. A reader encounters it as a "tangible," singular object that persists through time. In a sense, a codex "stands outside of chronology, able to communicate an imaginative truth in whatever present it is read." Simultaneously--and without contradiction--it also serves as a reminder of, a physical connection to, a past moment, and as such it affirms that the past is "recoverable," however partially or tenuously (156).

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My grandfather's Britannica, dated 1911, was given to him in 1949. He read it in 1965-66. Right now, January 28, 2014, I have the A to AND volume laying open beside my desktop. The information contained in this volume has passed through a century of hands. I'm sorely tempted to read it, as my grandfather did, from beginning to end. The prospect of reading this reference work as if it were a scroll appeals to me, sounds like a luxurious thing to do.

Such an activity would make perversely little use of what media studies scholars call the affordances of the technology, the way it enables readers to move swiftly via page numbers, tables of contents, guide words etc., to locate desired information. In compensation, one gains opportunities to relish instead a codex's poetic function, its message-in-a-bottle evocation of a lost world.

I suppose reading a novel could give the same satisfaction, except that reference works more overtly dramatize the ability of the codex to unify fragments and to collate disparate voices into a single statement.

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As I read the fourth edition of the PEPP, I feel connected to a present that is already on its way to becoming "historical." Timothy Yu's entry on "Asian American Poetry," for example, summarizes recent arguments by Yunte Huang, Josephine Nock-Hee Park, Brian Kim Stefans, and Steven Yao. Wonderful, useful, accurate. But Yu's bibliography ends in 2009. I'm sure, if given the chance, he would now want to go back and add references to (among other studies) Joseph Jonghyun Jeon's Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (2012) and Dorothy Wang's Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (2013).

The PEPP, read straight through, is already a monument to an era, or at least it conveys the feeling of encountering another era. It presents poetry and poetics, in toto, as assembled during the height of the Great Recession. The codex format is here a means of making history in the sense of giving the past a shape and form--and thereby making it recoverable and intelligible in the future.

A web page attached to a database may serve the same function as a printed reference book but it doesn't have the same affective and aesthetic impact. Web pages are always subject to editing or vanishing, and databases can always be updated or deleted. Books stick around. They can also be quite heavy.

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In the age of information overload, what can provide more solace than preserving a chunk of ephemeral data as a codex? Consider Paul Soulellis's ongoing art project Chancebooks, which he began in 2013 and describes as:

a publishing-on-demand experiment using Wikipedia and chance operations. Each Chancebook is a one-of-a-kind collection of up to 500 randomly pulled articles from Wikipedia. The selection and sequence of content is generated in real-time as the artist repeatedly clicks the “random article” button that appears on all Wikipedia pages and individually adds each page to the book. The total number of articles is determined by first pulling a random number (1–500) at random.org. The title is determined by the artist from the list of article titles in the book. Only one copy of each Chancebook exists, printed on-demand and delivered to the artist. The book’s design is automated and determined by the print-on-demand service. Included within each book are the date of creation, the location of the artist and the exact time and duration of the content generation.

The last bit there is key, of course--"the location of the artist and the exact time and duration of the content generation." The amorphous mercureal unreliable ubiquitous Wikipedia, suddenly rendered palpable and perduring.

In 2013 Kenneth Goldsmith issued a global call for people to help him print out the entire contents of the Internet and fill a gallery in Mexico City with the results. By the end of the gallery show, he had managed to assemble ten tons or so of printed matter. The photographs of him standing in front of mounds of paper both register an ardent desire to materialize memory--and the impossibility, in the twenty-first century, of doing so except partitively, that is, with a piece (poetically) standing in for an unmasterable, ungraspable whole.

From Goldsmith's mad rhyming dictionary No. 111 (1997) to Angela Genusa's Spam Bibliography (2013) one can trace a genealogy of hybrid reference work/poems. In February the Heyman Center at Columbia University is hosting an event titled "Reference Works," at which poets will "talk about the scholarly resources that inspire them, including poetry anthologies, rhyming dictionaries, standard dictionaries, handbooks of poetic forms, and other resources, such as the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics." Print-based reference works may soon cease to exist as utilitarian functional objects. That may complete their rebirth as a literary form.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.