I’m miserably behind on reading my RSS feeds, but this came to my attention last night when I opened Google Reader and winced, peeking through the fingers of the hand covering my eyes, at the number of unread articles. Rick Gekoski is a rare books dealer, an American expat whose London shop specializes in Modernism and 20th-century literature more generally (his current catalogue includes original letters by T.S. Eliot and, tantalizingly, a first edition of Ulysses, one of only 1000 printed, worth every penny at £37,500). He is also author of Outside of a Dog, a “bibliomemoir” of a lifelong obsession with books and years spent in the rare book trade. Gekoski also contributes regularly to the Guardian Books Blog, where I really enjoyed his ode to rare books catalogues in December.

My usual enjoyment of Gekoski’s columns is central to my disappointment in his most recent one, in which he recounts a tedious experience at a conference at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, where his metaphor of archives being like monkfish – “when it is eventually served up to you in bite-sized morsels, accompanied by rice and a salad, it is enticing, but when you see it in an unfilleted state it is ugly, cumbersome and unappealing” – went over like a lead balloon with the archival set. As a researcher I’m hugely indebted to archives, but I still think his metaphor is pretty damn funny. That, unfortunately, is where Gekoski and I part. He recounts asking a three-part question of some eminent archivists from the Ransom Center and the Folger Shakespeare Library, a question he says he thought was rather impertinent. Here’s part three:

“Remember that great phrase of Keats, describing how Coleridge “would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge”? By way of contrast, Keats instances Shakespeare, who, possessed of Negative Capability, was content to allow “uncertainties, mysteries and doubts” without attempting to resolve or rationalise them. I cite this because I believe we strip something numinous from our texts, reduce and denature them, when we focus too intently on how they came to be, and too little on the fact that they are. As if the purpose of literary research was to produce Variorum Editions [which exhaustively collate all known versions and variants of the text]. So let me pose this question in its final form, and ask you: if your library was offered the archive of the Penetralium of mystery, would you buy it?”

Each of the panel members took it in turn. No, they saw no problem in the processes and procedures of literary and archival research as they practised them. Yes, they would utterly adore to see the Shakespeare archive. And as for the Archive of the Penetralium of Mystery, whatever the hell that was, well it might be worth a look, at the right price.

We’ll leave aside penetralia – Keats at his most seemingly pornographic – and the fact that Gekoski elides the archivists’ actual responses to his questions, which I hope was because of space requirements and not in order to stack the rhetorical deck. Instead, we’ll focus on the argument that a detailed understanding of the processes of writing in some way over-emphasizes those processes “at the expense of product.” If Gekoski had left Shakespeare out of it, I might have been able to let well enough alone, but since he didn’t, I think he gets it precisely dead wrong.

The fundamental problem with Gekoski’s argument is a misunderstanding of the seeming finality of print, especially where pre-modern texts are concerned (and even those into the 19th century, but more on that later). Since he appeals to history to legitimize his argument (“considered historically, there is something to be said here”), this is a problem. In a Shakespearean context, the classic example of the unstable, un-final quality of printed texts is the difference between the First Quarto of Hamlet and that of the subsequent Second Quarto and First Folio. Printed in 1604, the Second Quarto text is preferred by editors even over the 1623 First Folio. Here are the familiar first lines of two of Hamlet’s best-known soliloquies from the Second Quarto:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, [Act I, Scene 2, ln. 129-30]

To be, or not to be – that is the question; [Act III, Scene 1, ln. 55]

And the beginnings of the same soliloquies from the 1603 First Quarto:

O that this too much grieved and sallied flesh
Would melt to nothing, or that the universal
Globe of heaven would turn all to chaos! [Scene 2, ln. 55-7]

To be, or not to be – ay, there’s the point. [Scene 7, ln. 115]

One immediately sees why editors have referred to the First Quarto as the “bad quarto” since time immemorial. The beginning of the speech in Scene 2 is a bit awkward, but “To be, or not to be – ay, there’s the point” falls on the ear like a sack of hammers. These lines sound so un-Shakespearean – but what does that mean, really? Recent scholarship (Leah Marcus’s Unediting the Renaissance is a classic in this subfield) has begun to examine just how complicated the process of authorship was in early modern drama, mediated as it was by at least five different people in a printer’s shop and censors at the office of the Master of Revels – not to mention the actors with whom Shakespeare worked every day and who, since actors never change, presumably gave the playwright notes about things they wanted changed in the text. Subsequent editors across 400 years have added to this palimpsest, making any authority, much less that of the author, difficult to find. Ultimately we cannot know how authoritative the text of the First Folio is versus prior or subsequent editions. But considering the possibilities opened up by the instability of these texts allows us to come toward something of a textual version of Keats’ Negative Capability, which is really about holding two jarring ideas, “ay, there’s the point” and “that is the question,” in the head at once and becoming comfortable thinking about the ambiguous frisson created by them.

Gekoski’s argument plays into the modern, “mind-meld” idea of authorship – that is, trusting that print is an authoritative, unmediated transmission of a finished product from an author’s mind to a reader’s. It’s too easy, and I don’t believe Gekoski, as someone who has spent his life amidst books and has written widely on them as both texts and objects (as the flap to his other book, Tolkien’s Gown, states), really meant to fall into that trap. There are moments when I’m writing – revising, rather – when I realize the only reason I’m holding onto a particular sentence, one that doesn’t have much else to offer, is for the sake of a metaphor I like or an unusually apt piece of vocabulary. Gekoski’s column may just such an instance, meaning, it’s not so much about the use of literary archives as about monkfish – an attempt to save a rather clever metaphor by immersing it in an easy anti-intellectual argument without much else to offer.

All this said, having read the comments on Gekoski’s post I can hear one obvious retort to my own argument: “Is this sort of information useful to anyone but specialists?” I would argue, yes, it should be, and fostering a more complex understanding of the material lives of texts could be a way to breathe life into the teaching of literature and cultural history. I admit to being biased – this is my specialty, and reading the foundational essay in this subfield, Peter Stallybrass and Margreta de Grazia’s “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,” it’s safe to say, changed my life. But I feel strongly that insights into the messy, complex ways in which books come to be on our shelves is something capable of captivating people and, crucially, making writers including Shakespeare (especially him) feel more immediate. This doesn’t only go for Shakespeare, either – last fall, Oxford’s Kathryn Sutherland (interviewed here on NPR) caused a stir when she made public an online archive of Jane Austen’s manuscripts which suggest her novels were heavily edited by somebody else. Many Janeites (my partner included) cried foul, but, as with the unstable texts of Hamlet, I don’t think the knowledge that these texts’ transmissions were considerably more complicated than a nicely edited Penguin edition makes it seem renders them less powerful or, to use Gekoski’s wonderful word, less numinous. Rather, this history, and the messy literary archives and variant texts that help us glimpse it, make these works and how they came to be even richer – makes it something like a miracle that they have come down to us at all.

Quotations from Hamlet are from the Arden Third Series Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor and published in 2006, which has all three primary editions (First and Second Quartos, First Folio) of the play. It’s hard to convey what a big damn deal this was when it came out, but rest assured that some Shakespeareans’ blood pressure has never recovered.