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Miscellaneous Hamlet

One of the chapters of Everything is Miscellaneous uses Hamlet as its example of the difficulty of specifying—and thus providing a unique ID for—a book. There are three established editions of the play, so when you want to point to Hamlet, which one do you point to? Not to mention the various publishers, editions, and versions, from large print to translations to ones with modern spellings to parodies to coloring books. It’s a big stinking problem that cannot be solved once and for all with precision because Hamlet is a cloud, although projects such as the OCLC’s xISBN and LibraryThing’s thingISBN try to solve it with an acknowledged degree of fuzziness..

I’ve been reading Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars and enjoying it despite his incredibly annoying quirk of turning dependent clauses. Into independent clauses. That distract the reader unnecessarily. Why, Ron, why? And what were his editors thinking? Anyway, the first part is a detailed account of the battles among scholars over the editing and significance of the three early editions of Hamlet. Rosenbaum clearly likes Ann Thompson’s approach of publishing an edition with all three. But her publishers, Arden, at first were reluctant because it would turn it into a 1,000-page volume too expensive for undergrads. She came up with the clever idea of publishing a heavily footnoted volume of the Good Quarto and a second volume containing the other two. Rosenbaum admits that this requires more work from the reader than would a single finished document that does not acknowledge that Hamlet is not a single, canonical work, but, he says, that sort of reader engagement is a good thing. (See pages 75-83 in Rosenbaum wrt Thompson.)

Back when I worked at Interleaf, we introduced a feature we called “effectivity,” a term taken from the airplane manufacturing industry, I believe. Intereleaf had an object-oriented tech doc word processor. Every element of any doc could be tagged with a term and a value. You could specify which elements were in effect and the system would instantly recompose the doc to meet those specs. So, you might tag a repair procedure with the model number of the unit it repairs and be able to dynamically assemble the repair documentation for an airplane based on the model numbers of the units that composed it. Back in 1990, this was a new idea and a very big deal. We called the documents we produced “active documents,” but today we’d call them “a Web page.”

So, when we’re routinely publishing books digitally rather than on paper, we still won’t have a single Hamlet, but we’ll be able to manage the Hamlet cloud in way that does justice to the work and to our interests.

Books will become playlist. [Tags: ]

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