Enlighten Me, Please! : An Analysis of The Ocean World’s Audience

I mentioned in my origins post that my book is actually a compilation of numerous French works by the scientist Louis Figuier, rather than a translation of one specific book. Although the editor of The Ocean World, or more accurately the compiler, E. Perceval Wright, mentions in the preface how he has pruned the flowery French prose within the original edition in order to make it more scientifically accurate, it is worth delving into the intent with which this verbose language was chosen by Figuier.

The 1800s was a century full of important transitions in scientific thinking and methodology. Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell both published famous books throughout the century, which Figuier would have undoubtedly been influenced by. Both scientists proposed revolutionary new theories that altered the way humans perceived nature and the planet. In particular, the biological sciences irreversibly shifted from regarding the world as an unchanging, stagnant pool of biodiversity to recording evolutionary relationships and adaptions among organisms. Figuier and, according to Wright, many other French and British scientists, sought to record the biodiversity of the world in a way that would be easily understandable to the public. Therefore, The Ocean World is an example of 19th century scientists’ attempts to enlighten the public about marine biology discoveries in the context of natural history, a relatively novel discipline.

Both physical and textual evidence in my book leads me to believe that it was intended for an educated, but not strictly scientific audience. Although Wright begins the preface by saying that he wants to make science more accessible to a “general reader”, other textual evidence within the book suggests that he assumed a certain level of intelligence for his readers. The table of contents, for example, shows that each chapter is dedicated to a specific taxa of organisms, such as a genus or family. This organization system indicates that the reader was assumed to be educated enough to understand scientific nomenclature. The inclusion of a table of contents for the illustrations and an index at the end also point to its intent as a scholarly reference guide, to be used possibly by researchers or educators.

However, other details add an interesting level of complexity to the book’s intent. While scholarly, scientific diction is used consistently throughout, there is also a prevalence of helpful diagrams and illustrations. These were probably included to make the text easier to understand for its audience, which means that its assumed audience did not necessarily have a scientific background. Even stronger evidence for this claim can be found in the numerous sections of text that do not concern marine taxonomy at all, but rather the history of societies and cultures that utilize marine organisms. One section, for example, describes the sponge-fishing practices of coastal Syrians.

“Sponge fishing on the coast of Syria”–an example of a typical historical illustration in The Ocean World. 

By incorporating history into the text, the author expands the readership of the book beyond a purely scientific audience. These inclusions also support Wright’s claim that he wanted to make scientific literature more “attractive” to the public because he may have thought that connecting biology to human history would make the text more compelling. It appears to me that this book was intended to teach a well-educated reader, either with or without a scientific background, the basic components of marine biological diversity, and how this diversity has been utilized throughout the world by human societies.

The physical design of the book indicates that The Ocean World was probably not exorbitantly expensive. The book has a publisher’s binding with a gold stamped vignette of a jellyfish. Publisher’s bindings were used to make books appear fancier than they actually were, which means this book was probably marketed to a middle class audience. Vignette stamps were usually left to the binder’s discretion, and stamps were often reused. But this particular vignette appears to have been chosen and/or designed to match the frontispiece illustration of a swarm of jellyfishes. This eye-catching and straight forward decoration may have been another attempt to make the text more accessible and captivating to readers lacking a scientific background.

The simple, but captivating front cover of The Ocean World. 

One important caveat of this analysis is that it is unclear how much of the text within the book is from Figuier’s other French books, and how much of it is Wright’s “revisions”. I talked about these mysterious “revisions” in my origins post. There is almost no information on the life of either scientist; however, one can assume from the information in Wright’s preface, as well as from other works published by the authors, that both men shared similar goals of disseminating biological knowledge to the public. But even if they had similar overarching goals, it is almost impossible to know how Figuier intended the original components of the text to be used, since they came from numerous different works of his. This is an important example of how editors and translators can influence the intended audience of a text.

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