Editing as Metareading

We’ve seen that for all their differences, the different types of scholarly editing — and of editing more broadly — are united by a common process: bringing forth something new from something already in existence.

We might also say that the varieties of scholarly editing all involve a certain way of reading.

We’ll call this way of reading metareading. By metareading, we mean a way of reading focused less on what a text says than on what it is. To clarify, let’s contrast metareading with some other, more familiar kinds of reading.

Close reading is a central practice in literary study and the humanities generally. Barbara Herrnstein Smith points out that the term “refers not only to an activity with regard to texts but also to a type of text itself: a technically informed, fine-grained analysis of some piece of writing, usually in connection with some broader question of interest” (“What Was Close Reading,” p. 58). She goes on to point out that the “practice has multiple ancestors, including classical rhetorical analysis, biblical exegesis, and legal interpretation, and it also has some cousins, such as iconology and psychoanalysis.”

Smith offers a quick sketch of how the practice has developed in academic literary studies since the 1920s in order to reflect on its relationship to what some digital humanists call distant reading: a way of reading that uses the power of computation to surface meaningful patterns across vast multitudes of texts, as in Franco Morretti’s computer-assisted analysis of seven thousand novel titles from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century.

N. Katherine Hayles uses the term machine reading for this kind of macroscopic approach, contrasting it both with close reading and with hyperreading, a term she borrows from James Sosnoski and then expands with a description from John Guillory. Sosnoski uses the term to cover the kind of rapid scanning, skimming, and link-following that readers do when using a search engine; Guillory includes the traditional scholarly practice, in archival research, of sifting through “a great deal of material quickly to find the relevant texts or passages” (“How We Read,” 496).

In her brief history of close reading, Smith observes that its first influential adherents in the twentieth century, the self-styled New Critics, set their practice consciously in opposition to the dominant one of the century’s early years, in which “the study of literature consisted largely of the production, transmission, and acquisition of facts about sets of texts,” including “titles, publication dates, and sources” of major works, and “readily observable features that distinguished forms, styles, and genres (the medieval romance, the Petrarchan sonnet, the Jacobean drama, and so forth)” (60).

When we use the term metareading here, we mean the approach to texts,described above, that was rejected by the New Critics. Metareading is largely descriptive and empirical. Practiced as an end in itself, with a mistaken confidence that there are facts about literary texts — or about anything in the realm of culture — that one can simply observe, it can certainly end up treating texts as what Smith calls “dusty achievements.” But practiced with nuance and as a means to other ends — from the relatively uncomplicated, such as making texts findable, to the highly complex, such as illuminating texts in relation to their contexts — metareading is a powerful, indeed essential, tool.

Without metareading there would be no library databases (or their predecessors, card catalogs), bibliographies, or citations (footnotes and endnotes). These are all essential scholarly aids precisely because of the empirical data about texts that’s stored in them and the regularized way in which the data’s been recorded. Carefully constructed bibliographies and properly formatted citations enable scholars to verify other scholars’ sources and pursue new directions for research because of the information they contain regarding such mundane details about a text as its author, title, publisher, publication date, and perhaps the title, volume number, issue, and page numbers of the journal in which it was published.

Metareading is a prerequisite for the rich interpretive discussion that we find in sophisticated literary close readings that turn on questions of genre. If we claim that a text represents an instance of a type such as novel, romance, epic, lyric, pastoral, tragedy, satire, magic realism, or speculative fiction, here again we’re making a statement about what the text is. The statement isn’t a mere observation but rather a critical judgment, and one with the power to completely re-order our understanding of what the texts says.

Without metareading, we’d have no way to understand a text’s meaning or cultural significance in relation to its publishing history (did the author make changes to later editions?), its material self-presentation (three-volume novel or inexpensive, paperbound numbers in a serial, or both?), or its treatment of paratextual features such as the title page (does it display the author’s real name? a pseudonym? “Anonymous”? no name at all?). We need metareading to be able to think about the text in relation to its date (or dates) of publication and everything else that was going on at that moment in the author’s life and the world at large.

Metareading and scholarly editing

As an example of how metareading comes into play in scholarly editing, consider the poems of Emily Dickinson. Virtually all of Dickinson’s poetry was unpublished — in the conventional sense — in her lifetime, although she shared and circulated her poems with several people in different handwritten forms. So editors of Dickinson’s poetry must begin with her manuscripts, in which some poems exist in multiple versions and Dickinson’s punctuation and capitalization are idiosyncratic.

As a result of different editorial choices around these variations, a poem with a single manuscript source may look quite different in different editions, possibly inviting different interpretations.

Even more significant, according to the editors of Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences: A Born-Digital Inquiry, readers typically encounter these poems as free-standing artifacts, whereas in actuality many were incorporated into or enclosed with the author’s letters. Prying them loose from this surrounding material changes what they are and may thus lead readers to miss or misunderstand some of what they say.

Published translations of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts homogenize her various writings so that all letters appear to be of the same ilk, as do all poems. Editions that divide letters from poems and poems from letters elide important aspects of the positions of Dickinson’s poems within epistolary contexts and vice versa. Emily Dickinson blended or embedded poems into the prose in letters; wrote them on separate sheets and enclosed them with letters; wrote poems and sent them as letters, with salutation and signature. In other words, Dickinson’s poems are often part of letters, and poems are often letters or are contextualized by their mutual enclosure in an envelope with a letter. But these poems, letters, and letter-poems are difficult to comprehend when they are stripped from their original context.

Far from treating Dickinson’s poems as “dusty achievements,” Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences seeks to give them new life for readers by restoring the context that other editions leave out. “By doing so,” the editors write,

we hope to make it possible for more readers to engage in deeper, broader inquiries into the writing practices of this revered American poet, asking questions such as, “What was Emily Dickinson writing? Is this verse or prose or something else? What kinds of practices did she enact in her letter writing? How are poems integral to, and integrated into, her letters? How might poems in letters, and letter-poems, differ from poems in bound manuscript books?”