Previous posts on Bewick’s Fables of Aesop and Others:
Perhaps indicative of his powerful legacy as an illustrator, Bewick’s Fables of Aesop and Others has been republished frequently by a large variety of printers continuing even into the (relatively) modern day. On http://hathitrust.org, you can find many of the copies that have been printed throughout the years.
Here is a catalog entry on one of the first editions that was printed in 1818 by E. Walker in Newcastle, England (just like my pet book). The pages are identical to that of the volume I am studying, as you can see below.
However, here you will find the HathiTrust catalog entry of another copy, printed by D. Appleton in New York in 1903. This discovery is quite intriguing to me, as it shows the enduring importance of Bewick’s work; after all, it was considered important enough not just to be reprinted but to travel across the Atlantic to the U.S. and be shared with American readers. I think in part this is due to the culturally-ageless nature of Aesop’s Fables, as their moral lessons and cute characters continue to remain relevant in the sphere of Western literature. However, to ignore the role Bewick’s legacy plays in this reincarnation of his work would be reckless. After all, as I dicussed in my last post, Bewick was a trailblazer in the field of book illustration. His innovations defined the work of artists for decades after his death and apparently, as we can see through the reprinting of this volume, inspired audiences for just as long.
However, as awesome as it is to see the continuation of Bewick’s legacy through the reprinting of these books, I can’t help but feel that something is lost in each of these textual dopplegangers. The digital “binding” of the HathiTrust book is quite plain, just a simple picture of an unadorned black leather cover. This is in sharp contrast to the cover of my pet book, which is bound in luxurious red morocco with delicate gilding. Considering the somewhat over-the-top nature of my pet book’s physical form is a key part of its meaning as an object, this takes away from the experience of the text.
Further, my pet book is quite heavy. It is large, and when you hold it in your hands, you can feel the weight of it and the texture of the cover. All of this contributes to the experience a reader has, and all of these aspects are missing in the digital facsimile. You can’t hold the HathiTrust scan in your hands, or feel the texture of the binding. Rather, it becomes an entirely visual experience instead of a physical one.
These differences extend to the ways you navigate through the text, as well. The HathiTrust interface presents the pages one by one in a linear fashion. They do provide the option to jump to certain pages so that if you go to the table of contents and want to look at a specific fable, you can; however, this still doesn’t compensate for the ease of navigation that is lost in the digital reproduction. The defining aspect of Aesop’s Fables is that they are bite-sized stories, meant to be flipped through and browsed. While you technically still can do that in the HathiTrust copy, it feels like much more of an effort. Either you have to scroll through the pages one by one, or you have to jump to a specific page. You can’t really just flip through it and pick a fable that looks interesting to you, which I believe is a crucial part of my pet book.
There are positive things about the digital facsimile, though. In my pet book, it is quite difficult to see all the details of Bewick’s illustrations. Because of their small scale, and his incredibly precise work, you can’t see a certain aspects of his engravings without pulling out a magnifying glass. The HathiTrust version, on the other hand, is enlarged and magnified, allowing you to see all the fine details of Bewick’s engravings and really study them in depth. However, we must consider that while it is a hassle, having to pull out the magnifying glass to look at Bewick’s work is an integral part of the experience. After all, before digital facsimiles were a thing, readers had to do exactly that if they wanted to see all the details– so just looking at the HathiTrust copy seems like a bit of a shortcut.
I don’t mean to discredit the digital facsimiles entirely, as they are very useful if you don’t have access to the actual book. However, nothing can compare to holding the physical book in your hands. As I said before, looking at the digital facsimile of Fables of Aesop and Others turns the reader’s (or viewer’s, perhaps) experience into one that is wholly visual. You are simply looking, reading, entirely focused on the text– but this is not true to the experience of my pet book. The experience of my pet book, while visual, is very much so grounded in the physical. As you look at it, you feel its weight and texture in your hands. You flip through the pages with ease. You have to look closely to see all the details of the engravings. All of these seemingly extraneous details are what make Bewick’s Aesop into the object that it is. Without them, it’s no longer my pet book. The text might be the same, but if you can’t hold the physical (and ridiculously beautiful) object in your hands, you aren’t really experiencing the truth of Fables of Aesop and Other.