Want to get your hands on
an antiquarian treasure?
Philip Smith, AB’89, uses digital technology
to reclaim classic texts.
Are you the kind of person who’d love
to page through your own 1827 edition of Redouté’s
botanical album Choix des Plus Belles Fleurs or a hand-colored
copy of Gerardus Mercator’s revolutionary Atlas? Or perhaps,
inspired by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s best-selling
The Rule of Four, you’ve decided it’s time
to take a closer look at the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
If so, you’re among the people on whom Philip Smith, AB’89,
from Cupid’s Revenge
Smith is an editor at Octavo, an Oakland, California,
company that produces digital editions and research facsimiles of
rare books and manuscripts. In partnership with the Library of Congress,
the New York Public Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and
other archives, Octavo creates Adobe-based CD editions for archivists,
educators, students, and bibliophiles. At any moment, Smith says,
Octavo is at work on a dozen or so projects; among those “in
the hopper” are Galileo’s Compasso Geometrico et
Militare, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, and a hand-colored
edition of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender.
The electronic editions are designed to give
more readers a firsthand experience of a milestone text: each one
includes page-by-page views, expert commentaries, and appropriate
“marginalia” (a wormholed text, for example, prompts
an essay on bookworms). In this way Smith hopes that Octavo will
help nonspecialists (undergraduates are a prime marketing target)
“bridge the gulf between abstract and concrete thinking”
and to understand how a received classic looked and was looked at
in its time.
Octavo editions, says Smith, whose previous
editing jobs include stints with Dover Books and the University
of Chicago Press journals division, also emphasize the works’
provenance: “who owned them, how they were cared for, and
the like.” Exploring each book’s unique history “teaches
us much about the book’s meaning and reception, as well as
the often miraculous preservation of cultural materials by caring
Take, for example, William Blake. The fact
that a few collectors safeguarded Blakean volumes through years
of literary obscurity is “testimony to the vital importance
of individual care in the transmission of culture. In an era in
which the individual is often overwhelmed by institutional contexts,
standards, and modes of discourse, I think this is a very important
message for students to receive.”—M.R.Y.