Lost in Translation: The Artistry of Little Journeys

As I have remarked in previous blog posts, Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors if first and foremost a wonderful example of Arts and Crafts bookmaking. The text, a compilation of anecdotes about famous English authors, is secondary to the fine hand-made paper, the suede binding, the deckled edges, of this work of art. This artistry is almost entirely lost in a digital facsimile. While the facsimile captures the text and even the illuminations accurately, a reader loses the feel of the fine paper and binding and the meaning that those aspects impart upon the reader. D. F. McKenzie said that “form effects meaning,” and this proclamation rings true in Hubbard’s work.

The digital facsimile that I found in in Google Books, and can be located at this link: https://books.google.com/books?id=fdspAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA163&dq=little+journeys+to+the+homes+of+english+authors&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwipj-Dxy93aAhWxd98KHYRADec4ChDoAQgvMAI#v=onepage&q=little%20journeys%20to%20the%20homes%20of%20english%20authors&f=false

 

The cover of the copy in Colby’s Special Collections next to the digital facsimile.

 

The first thing to greet a reader on the facsimile is a photograph of the front and back of the New York Public Library’s copy. This cover is not original, but has been redone in leather and a marbled pattern. Already something has been lost from the physical version besides the original cover. One of the main reasons I chose Hubbard’s book to study was its interesting, soft suede cover. It was different and fun and I found that fascinating. A reader cannot feel the cover on the digital facsimile.

Once the page is turned on the facsimile (and it is important to note that turning the page cannot be done in the digital form, rather, a reader has to scroll or click on one the hyperlinks placed in the table of contents) there are a few pages with Hubbard’s initials and an Ex Libris for the NYPL. Then the reader is greeted by the print of Thomas McCauley. The prints, in black and white in the physical version, have not lost much in digital form. The scan has been done well, and other than the quality of the paper that the image was printed on there is not much difference.

One of the portraits, of Lord Byron, from the physical book. On the right is the facsimile portrait of Thomas McCauley.

After the print comes the printer’s mark and title page. Here is where the facsimile begins to come up short. The scan, or photograph, of the title page is done poorly, with the left side being washed and blurred by light. This is, however, one of the few color images in the digital facsimile. Still, the image does not do justice to the physical version. The intricate details created by both the print and subsequent hand-illuminations cannot be seen well enough to appreciate.

 

The title page of the physical and the facsimile version. The scan is shoddy on the left side of the facsimile.

After the print and illuminate title page appear they appear again twice more. The next two scans are done better, but still do not give the feel of the physical copy.

Following those pages, we have the page dedicated to the Roycrofter’s mark and the edition number. The image is not in color and the mark loses some of its beauty without the red ink. Also, as with many of the pages, the watermark can neither be felt nor seen in light.

 

The edition page with the printer’s mark.

The table of contents afterward is one of the few places where the facsimile is more helpful than the physical version. The sections have been hyperlinked and it is much easier to find a specific author than in the physical version.

When all of the introductory pages are done, what’s left is mostly just the text and later printed images. Here, ignoring the paper and binding, the facsimile is similar to the physical version. However, the illuminations have not been scanned in color. They appear in dull blacks and grays. The scans have also been done is a way that caused the illuminations to bleed through to the reverse side and distract from the text.

An illumination from the physical copy next to one from the facsimile.

Some of the scans in the digital facsimile do justice to the artistry of Hubbard’s book, some do not. The hand-illuminated text is best seen in the physical copy. The text is largely unaffected by digitization. It remains the overall feel of the book, the weight, not only of the book itself, but of the handmade elements. The soft suede and delicate paper give a palpable, but emotional, weight to Hubbard’s text. Without this, the digital facsimile is a decent and brief history of English authors.

With that being said, the question of distributive intent must be asked. Hubbard’s works were hand-made and published in small batches, often of under a thousand copies. Does digitalization, and thus mass access, devalue Hubbard’s work? In my opinion, digitalization is a fine method to capture Hubbard’s words, and only the words. The text is what can be accessed, not the craftsmanship or artistry. Digitalization has immortalized Hubbard’s thoughts on many of the great English Authors, but it has not devalued his artisanal endeavor. On the contrary, digitalization has only made those endeavors more valuable. In an age where texts can be brought up at someone’s finger tips, Hubbard’s works, with the history of loving labor right in the pages, have more value than ever before.