In my study of traditional Chinese literature I often deal with old books. Not only were my novels published quite a while ago, a lot of research that is still relevant today was done in the last century. Take the case of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義: before the increase in secondary literature since the 1990s, there was a partial German translation in 1912, an article in 1958, a book in 1962 and another in 1987. While containing brilliant research, it is sometimes difficult dealing with the shape in which they were published.
The 1987 work is a thesis by Pin Pin Wan that is available digitally at ProQuest, a depository for many doctoral theses from the USA. By the looks of it, it was written on a typewriter, which was standard for theses at the time, but unfortunately never makes for a pleasant reading. The improvement of word processors for personal use is especially good news for scholars of Sinology (or any other subject invovling non-Latin scripts), since scholars formerly had to leave blanks in his text and then fill in the Chinese characters by hand. That can’t have been fun.
The other publications were by the famous scholar Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 (yes, that’s how he transcribed his name) and had nice type-face, but came with other challenges: the pages of the 1958 article started falling apart (as in: little pieces broke off) when I went to photocopy them. The translation and the 1962 book are hardcover and in this weird format that books from this time often have which makes it hard to hold them comfortably, meaning that you are always bound to sit at a desk reading it and that you naturally limit your time carrying it around. This is especially annoying for the novel, since I do a lot of my reading when I’m commuting on public transport or sitting comfortably on a couch. This made me spend less time with this particular translation than I did with the English translation published in 1992 that was printed in a much nicer format. I feel like this should not be something that influcences my research, but sadly it seems to have quite the impact on how I engage with texts.
On the whole though, I guess I still got of relatively lightly, since none of the books I had to consult regularly were significantly damaged, overly dusty or even mouldy. Only rarely I had the impulse to immediately go to wash my hands after dealing with some of the books in our library’s collection, because I felt like my hands were covered in icky particles that I didn’t want to transfer to my pens, notebook or computer.
There are various reasons why libraries hold onto books that are in less than perfect condition. Because of tight library budgets, institutes hang on the their first purchase of a book, even if newer editions are available and only the disappearance (either through theft or forgetful borrowers) of a book merits another purchase. Plus, a lot of academic books get discontinued very soon and a lot of the old publications are simply out of print. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions make it impossible for libraries to simply stock photocopies of important books. Libraries’ printing services are moreover forbidden from copying or scanning more than 10% of a book for scholarly research.
Thankfully, there are initiatives to digitize books where copyright has ended. Some of these are even free to use, if sometimes a little complicated to navigate. One such example is the archive.org, where I found my 1912 Fengshen yanyi translation again and was able to read it outside of its impractical oversized format and without the whiff of dust that always surrounded the book in our library. It even gave me a much higher appreciation for the translation itself. This is a very powerful demonstration of the power of the paratext as defined by Gérard Genette: the elements added to the main text that – though not part of the text itself – can change the reception thereof. Though this concept is often used to discuss matters such as title page, preface, illustrations etc., the overall appearance of the book definitely also falls into this category.
But even though the move towards digitization worked wonders for the Fengshen yanyi translation, sometimes I still long for a physical book to work with. That is why I recently was on the lookout for a copy of the out-of-print Qing dynasty novel Lin Lan Xiang 林蘭香 (first published in 1838). I could find a full text version on open-lit.com and download an html version onto my phone for offline use. This would have been absolutely adequate for me in this stage of my research, where the main thing is reading the 64 chapter novel in its entirety. But I still felt that I would prefer an actual physical copy of the novel to work with, leaf through and put sticky notes in.
A friend was kind enough to look for the book on second-hand online book market kongfz.com 孔夫子旧书网 when he was in China and bring back a copy that was published in 1985. Unfortunately, the book is only in ok condition. Mostly, it smells. And it keeps me from wanting to work with the hard copy. However, I don’t only read for personal pleasure, but as part of my academic work. As such I appreciate the fact, that I now own a published book version that I can quote from, while I continue reading the online version.
Going forward, I certainly look forward to an increased digitization of old books relevant to my studies. But I would also very much hope for new ways to obtain hard copies of out-of-print books. Maybe modern printing technology will allow publishing houses to increase their backlist and allow them to print individual copies upon request? Maybe they can offer e-book versions of their out-of-print books?
If anyone has tips on how to remove smell from an old book, please share them in the comments.
Grube, Wilhelm: Metamorphosen der Götter: Historisch-mythologischer Roman aus dem Chinesischen, 1912. Facsimile on archives.org part 1, part 2
Gu Zhizhong: Creation of the Gods, 1992. On worldcat.org
柳存仁: 毘沙門天王父子與中國小說之關係, 新亞學報, 3:2 (1958), find the journal on worldcat.org
Liu Ts’un-yan: Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Novels: The Authorship of the Feng shen Yen I, 1962. On worldcat.org
Wan, Pin Pin: Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen yanyi”): Sources, Narrative Structure, and Mythical Significance, 1987. On worldcat.org (check your library for access to ProQuest dissertations & theses)