[Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

Jesse Swan jesse.swan at uni.edu
Sun Dec 12 01:01:54 EST 2004

Just in from a remarkable day shopping near and far ('tis the season, I
suppose, even if I purchased more for myself than for others, and even if I
seem to shop as much in any season I can concoct).  Finding two nice posts
on the relatively slow Milton-L (many of us are grading what many others of
us have just written, no doubt), I thought I'd dash off a contribution.

Understanding Nancy Charlton's concern for how documents represent
abstractions that form the texts many of us are really interested in, Mike
Deesing's interest in the abstraction known as _Paradise Lost_, a host of
commentators, such as Ong, on abstractions other than documentary ones, and
commentators, such as Tanselle, on abstractions represented by documents, I
wonder what we're to think of any document more impressive than a small,
cheap, paperback (if bound at all)  representing the twelve books of
_Paradise Lost_?

I wonder this, as many will surmise, because many knowledgeable people, such
as those who publish criticism on _Paradise Lost_ with the intention of
being authoritative in some way, usually draw on the 12 book form, which was
published in octavo.  (Granted, they also usually draw on the 12 book form
as eclectically emended, in some way, to include what is taken to be better
documentary representations from the 10 book form, published first.)   It's
not until the fourth edition, in 1688, that we get the material dignity of a
folio (saying at least as much, if not perhaps more, about Tonson, the
publisher, as about Milton).  Without committing ourselves to going too
deeply into the phenomenology of reading, I think many of us can agree that
reading small, cheap, paperbacks gives rise to experiences very different
from those of reading large, magisterial, hardbound volumes.

Still, I also imagine that many of us would agree that the abstraction that
is _PL_ is, perhaps curiously, rendered in all of the forms, including the
grand ones Milton never overtly authorized, to use Moyles's language, or, at
least, to use less materialistic and legalistic language, the materially
grand ones Milton never understood to have been published.  If this is the
case, then Mike Deesing's question, which strikes me as the sort of question
an Eve might well ask, not realizing what asking such a question might imply
to someone lurking about, as on a listserv or around a blessed garden,
becomes a richly provocative one, indeed.  There is no document representing
the Bible in _PL_, but this doesn't keep many a character from running about
giving voice to it.

I wonder, further, what it would be like for Mike Deesing to come to know
the text that is _PL_ by way of having someone, or some several people, read
it aloud to him, as he reclines, eyes closed, on a sofa, in an attentive,
half-irascible, half-magnanimous mood?  I imagine that I would not be the
only one on this listserv to envy him this.  I don't know which document,
though, to suggest his lector or lectors read from.

The value of reading a text such as _PL_, among other things, is that it
helps you know who you are, according to your understanding,
interpretations, reactions.  As many a professor has said, finding saying so
irresistible at some point, the quality of _PL_ is not tested with any given
reader; every given reader is.  The answer to the question, "what do you
think of _PL_?" can reveal, really, only the character of the person making
the answer.

I think _Paradise Lost_ is one of the grandest works of humanity.  I strive,
daily and perhaps vainly, to make myself commensurate with it.  (I trust all
understand that, given what I said in the previous paragraph, I had to say
this in this paragraph, and, further, I trust that all will, nonetheless,
understand what I say in this paragraph to be true, even if, in the context
of the previous paragraph, it is, apparently, self-aggrandizing.)

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Nancy Charlton" <n.charlton at comcast.net>
To: "John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
Sent: Saturday, December 11, 2004 8:14 PM
Subject: Re: [Milton-L]

> Mike, there have been many printings and many editions of Paradise Lost
> since it was first published. In order to ascertain the value of the book
> qua book, we'd need to know the following:
> Publisher
> Editor, if applicable
> Publication date and place
> How the book is made and bound
> Its condition
> Whether annotated, and if so what kind of notes
> As to the content, we on this list would agree that the value of PL as a
> work of literature can't really be measured, as it has proved endlessly
> thrilling, meaningful, and "interestine" to about 16 generations of
> -speaking people, and more than a few who've read it in translation.
> Whether your book is of value to bibliophiles or not, if you haven't read
> it--and it sounds like you haven't--go for it! Read it out loud
> don't worry about all the allusions you don't understand, but just enjoy!
> Nancy Charlton
> At 05:17 PM 12/11/2004, you wrote:
> >Hello,I have a book that i am seeking the value of and was wondering if
> >you could help me in any way?  It it miltons paridise lost and looks very
> >interestine to say the least.  mike
> >
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