Why We Like Reading an Old Story in an Old Book

Last year, the Project consulted with several specialist academic groups, including Miltonists, Eighteenth-century studies, and the British Branch of the International Arthurian Society (IASBB). A competition was launched with the IASBB to write and submit a blog post on a topic related to reading influences or practices – including favoured locations and ways to read, academically; iconic texts; or the place that a learned society like the IASBB has in their research life. Full details of the competition can be found here. The entries were judged by Professor P.J.C. Field (Bangor) and Sue Hodges, Bangor University’s Director of Libraries and Archives. The winning entry was judged to be that written by Anastasija Ropa, who completed her BA and MA at the University of Latvia, and her PhD at Bangor University. Anastasija has won a week as Visiting Fellow at the new collection of Arthurian books housed in Bangor University Library, consisting of a week’s accommodation at the Management Centre in Bangor, and a £100 contribution from the IASBB towards travel costs to get there. As the winner, Anastasija has also agreed to write a report on her time in Bangor once the Visiting Fellowship is complete.

ias-logo-home-enAn edited version of Anastaija’s winning entry is reproduced in this blog post in full, and the Project would like to extend its congratulations to Anastasija and all the competition entrants for their stimulating, thought-provoking, and honest posts.

 

Some books are boring, some are entertaining and some change your life. Which is going to be the book to change the lives of the next generation of Arthurian scholars? Is it Malory; is it Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; or Chretien de Troyes? Or something completely different? I would say these books have their potential, and are likely to remain significant for generations of students and scholars – especially given the brilliant new critical editions that facilitate their access and study. Yet I have a feeling there is something to be said for the less common candidates in the less glossy modern editions, for a number of reasons. Firstly, new critical editions are expensive and hard to come by, especially outside the UK and US. Students in smaller universities around the world will continue to read the older editions of the romances. When I was a student, my own library had only one edition of Malory – Vinaver’s, and no edition of Chretien’s romances or Sir Gawain.

However, the expensiveness of new editions is not the whole argument. Shall I confess my love of old books, including old scholarly books, to a community of progressive academics versed in the most recent trends in humanities studies? Yes, I shall – knowing that I am not alone. At the heart of it, much as we find the latest editions valuable and indispensible in our daily we work, we look at the old editions with affection, loving them as we love the stories told by our seniors.

I will tell you two stories of how I fell in love with Arthurian studies.

Imagine a cold winter day, a scratched wooden desk and a hard chair in the old building of the Latvian National Library. The building itself has a medieval feeling to it. The windows must date from the nineteenth century, and drafts of freezing air pass in and out freely through cracks as wide as your index finger.

Did it feel like this to be in a monastic scriptorium? I wondered – a second-year English undergraduate, remembering the opening scenes of Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King (1995). Before me, the 2nd corrected edition (1971) of Malory’s works by Eugene Vinaver, which certainly seemed like a substantial volume to read in situ in the current weather conditions. I opened the blue covers, the yellowish leaves rustling under my fingers as if they belonged to a different age and a different world.

I do not remember how far I got with my reading or how much I understood. The only thing I remember is the romantic charm of the cold outside, and the yellowish leaves and the perplexing spelling and layout of the text. I was there, because, one year ago, in my first study year, we had to choose the theme of our first term paper. But this is another story.

An undergraduate student anxious to get everything right knocks on the door of the most respectable professor in the department. The student has to choose the topic for her first term paper, which should, preferably, be in one way or another related to her eventual BA paper. A serious undertaking for the first term, requiring courage, daring, and ingenuity. After scrutinising the list of offered topics, the student decides to suggest her own:

‘I would like to write my first term paper with you, and I would like to suggest my own topic.’

‘Yes, of course. What is your topic?’

‘King Arthur and the Knights of the round Table.’

‘It is a very broad topic. Could you be more specific?’

I do not want to be more specific. But, to show my respect, I decide to compromise.

‘The Grail Quest Legend?’

‘Still too broad. Maybe you could choose one character or one aspect of the Grail quest?’

I really want to avoid limiting myself to one character or one aspect. There is perplexed silence on my part. But, genuinely respecting the professor whom I address, I make one desperate effort:

‘The Grail Quest in Celtic Literature.’

‘It is still too broad, but you can narrow it down while working on your paper.’

This is how my career in Arthurian studies began.

Indeed, the Grail quest in Celtic literature is not only too broad a topic; it is something of a non-topic! There is no Grail in Celtic literature before the French Vulgate romances were translated into Welsh. But, oblivious of the difficulties waylaying my newly selected path of studies, I rushed to the Faculty Library, to the British Council Library and to the National Library in quest of all texts Celtic.

There was a manageable amount of medieval Celtic texts containing cauldrons and cups and other Grail-like objects. Yet the text I remember best was in the Mabinogion translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, and it was the story of Culhwch and Olwen. As you may remember, it is the story of a young lad who tricked and blackmailed King Arthur and his warriors into looking for the lad’s future bride, whom no one had ever seen. Given the number of beautiful and noble ladies at Arthur’s court, Culhwch’s choice to seek Olwen may seem somewhat illogical, but this is how medieval romance works.

The most memorable part of the story is, of course, the list of characters present at Arthur’s court, most of whom we never see again in this or any other Mabinogion story. Names, some with descriptions and short stories attached: boozers, eaters, grotesquely ugly or impossibly heroic people. The list is nearly impossible to get through in one go, but not without its rewards. Somewhere towards the middle one stops trying to understand who all these people are and why they should be mentioned there, and begins to wonder if it is possible to find out more about these people and their achievements.

There was a certain attraction to Lady Guest’s translation: flowing and elegant language, absence of distraction in the form of footnotes. The latter was also its limitation: once you have read the story, and wanted to find out more, the only place was the preface to the edition, which did not tell much about the amazing list of characters. I do not think that more would have been available in an editorial note, but this silence was vexing, and made me want to read more. In fact, every piece of medieval Celtic literature I could lay my hands on in quest of the elusive members of Arthur’s court.

So, what is the bottom line of it all? That all students should read old books in uncomfortable surroundings before becoming real Arthurians? Maybe not. Maybe the real trick is to have a good edition, which either gives you the text as it is or gives you a readable translation of it, free of excessive notes. Ideally, the notes telling you everything about the text and a little more would be handily available, at the end of your volume or in a separate one, to satisfy the curiosity excited by the text itself. This description reminds of Professor Peter Field’s new edition of Malory: an ideal edition of the romance of all time, but, alas, this edition is unlikely to enter any of the local libraries in the near future. So, I turn back to my 1971 edition by Vinaver.

 

The Project would like to extend its special thanks to the Management Centre in Bangor for their generous provision of a week’s accommodation, and to the IASBB for providing up to £100 in travel expenses for the winner. They would also like to thank Professor Raluca Radulescu, who has kindly agreed to meet with the Fellow to discuss research and use of the collection.

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#AcBookWeek: The Future of the English PhD

On 12 November 2015 a dozen PhD students working in literary and creative writing areas came together at De Montfort University, Leicester, in order to consider the future of the PhD in English from as many different angles as possible. This guest post, written by Richard Vytniorgu (English PhD candidate, DMU), captures the day’s main points of discussion.

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

During the one-day workshop, considerations of the English PhD included:

  1. Its place within the wider scope and roles of HE more generally in twenty-first-century society.
  2. Possibilities for more creative approaches to the writing of the thesis/output(s).
  3. The demands of REF (and potentially TEF) and further authorial activity in HE contexts, and how these affect the English PhD.
  4. What academic publishers are looking for in the academic (literary) book of the future.

In order to stimulate small-group discussions later in the day around these topics, we were joined by a number of academics or stakeholders in literary studies/ creative writing at HE level, who offered thought-provoking positioning pieces from their own perspectives and experiences.

Nicholas Maxwell (UCL) tackled the first issue from the perspective of his career-long mission to adjust the aims and methods of university-level inquiry. Drawing particularly on his two books, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities (1984, 2007) and How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World (2014), Maxwell reiterated the need for academia to shift from a knowledge-inquiry-based paradigm of learning to one of wisdom inquiry:

‘(a) to arrive at some kind of consensus as to what our most important problems of living are, and what we need to do about them, and at the same time (b) to carry on a sustained, lively, imaginative, and critical, intellectually responsible debate about these matters’.[i]

The essential shift here is from responsibility toward problems of knowledge to problems of living, while recognising that some problems of living are also problems of knowledge.

John Schad (Lancaster) went on to offer a précis of contemporary work on ‘creative criticism’ – a genre similar to creative nonfiction, but nevertheless distinctive as pertaining to literary study specifically. Schad admitted that it was difficult at present to adopt more creative instincts, approaches, and methods to the genre of literary criticism and scholarship. But by reading some of his own work, such as Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery (2007), he was able to demonstrate to an audience partly composed of creative writers who were also writing critical PhDs, how one could architect and execute that subjective presence so often felt in ‘creative criticism’.[ii]

After lunch the day moved in a more pragmatic direction by turning our attention to issues of REF and publishing. Ben Johnson (HEFCE) was unable to make it on the day, so we were very grateful to Deborah Cartmell (DMU), who stepped in to provide a concise summary of the REF and the general expectations for early career researchers, using her own experience at DMU to give some useful anecdotal reflections. Deborah was followed by Ben Doyle from Palgrave, who offered tips on publishing and turning the English PhD into a book. From Ben Johnson’s advice given in advance of the day and also from Ben Doyle’s talk, it was clear that those outside the academy are looking for more creative and innovative work that is somewhat loosened from the intense specificity and remoteness of some topics chosen for monographs.

The rest of the day was given over to small-group discussions, following a worksheet I devised in order to steer conversation around the four topic areas the day was devoted to. I collected the sheets at the close of day and I hope to publish a commentary on these proposals for action and areas of concern in the near future. This will be refracted through my own research into the wisdom quest and aesthetic experiences with literature, as a theory and ‘metaphorisation’ of literary study at HE level.

For the moment, the following were identified as issues worthy of further attention by students and academic staff alike:

  1. The necessity in practice to ‘re-write’ the PhD in order to publish it in book form.
  2. The lack of clarity surrounding creative writing and REF.
  3. The dearth of discussion on ‘English Education’ at PhD level: its qualities, aims, methods, outputs etc.
  4. The difficulties inherent in intense specialisation.

We are grateful to The Academic Book of the Future for supporting our discussions and for enabling us to invite speakers to assist these. The workshop-seminar was a refreshing departure from those glass-half-empty forecasts for the future of literary studies at HE level: the difficulties of proceeding in this line of work, etc. If I came away with one new conviction, it was probably confidence in the need to continually assess the status quo. As young academics it can be tempting to assent to the way things are simply because we assume we have no power to change things. But as one of my PhD subjects, the educator and theorist Louise Rosenblatt, continually asserted, this is the highroad to authoritarian regimes. Democracy invites us to collaborate when we lay aside our competitive natures; to be honest about our lived (rather than imagined) situations; to reject what seems to be anachronistic or harmful, to keep what nourishes and affirms, and to put forward proposals for change based on principles of mutual aid. We hope that in the future more PhD students in English will feel emboldened to question, and, eventually, to work for change from the starting point of their own lived situations.

 

The participants in the day were:

Hollie Johnson (University of Nottingham)

Jerome S. Wynter (University of Birmingham)

Becky Cullen (Nottingham Trent University)

Jo Dixon (Nottingham Trent University)

Lynda Clark (Nottingham Trent University)

Sean Donnelly (University of Birmingham)

Katie Hamilton (University of Nottingham)

Richard Vytniorgu (De Montfort University)

Emily Heathcote (University of Nottingham)

Richard Bromhall (Nottingham Trent University)

Hannah Murray (Nottingham University)

Martin Kratz (Manchester Metropolitan University)


 

[i] Nicholas Maxwell, How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2014), p. 17.

[ii] See Stephen Benson and Clare Connors (eds), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) for more discussion on this genre of writing.

#AcBookWeek: The Guadalajara International Book Fair (28 Nov-6 Dec 2015)

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Today’s guest post is by Simon Mahony (Department of Information Studies, UCL), who spoke about The Academic Book of the Future at the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair. This post is a brief summary of his talk.

I was very pleased to be invited by the British Council to take part in one of their Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico events and to speak in an academic panel at the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) at the start of December. This is apparently the largest literary festival and most important publishing gathering in Latin America with the reputation of being the largest book fair in the world after Frankfurt. The title of the panel organised by the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Guadalajara was ‘The Challenges of Knowledge Production in Modern Societies’ and as part of the FIL there was plenty of excuse to showcase some of our publications.

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My talk ‘Reflections on knowledge production within the framework of UK academic institutions’ finished up with some slides about The Academic Book of the Future generously given to me by my colleague Samantha Rayner. This allowed me to go full circle in my talk about knowledge production and the academy as well as traditional versus new modes of production.

My talk started with the first Free Universities in the European Enlightenment period, with scholarship built on previous scholarship, and open discourse through the publication model – this being the cornerstone of Humanities scholarship. Moving through knowledge representation, I argued strongly for the Open Access movement with the modern university as a driver for this, particularly with the mandate for open publication of research output.

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I finished up with a showcase of some open UCL output including UCL Press and followed by The Academic Book of the Future project, more specifically the Palgrave Pivot publication of the same name, edited by Rebecca Lyons and Samantha Rayner. What is a Book Fair without some promotion and product placement?

Images of me, the panel, and the books (including this volume prominently placed on the desk!) were captured in video and stills and circulated by the University of Guadalajara, as well as on Twitter and other social media platforms.

I offered the two volumes generously donated by the authors to the University of Guadalajara library so the physical medium (and reputation of the authors and editors!) would have an immediate international and trans-continental impact factor. The FIL itself was definitely impressive and certainly lived up to its reputation as the biggest book fair in the world after Frankfurt: so many books and so many publishers.