The Primacy of Paper (or, why I love books instead of scans)

>Say what you will about new media . . . for me the enchantment is and will always be about works on paper. In terms of historical evidence, it can’t be beat. No virtual text will ever be the primary source that a physical text can be.

A recent (as in 15 minutes ago) find inspires me to say this. Today I was sorting through a small collection (about 100 items) of maritime books and pamphlets, given to the library years ago. There are scores of such piles in my department, patiently waiting for me to have time to deal with them. Among the books I found this little pamphlet (Anatomy of a Mutiny, published in 1968) about a famous mutiny aboard the whaleship Sharon (1842). It seemed innocuous enough–a typical separately published offprint from a periodical (in this case, The American Neptune, 27 (2), April 1967). Except that this copy has some interesting annotations.

The story told is of a brutal captain (Howes Norris) who tortured (by repeated flogging) and eventually killed the steward, a black man (some reports say “mulatto”) from Newport; the captain also had several other men beaten (mostly native recruits from the Pacific islands, called kanakas by the whalemen), and had another man, a cooper, tied up and set adrift in a small boat, who was never heard from again. The main crew (including the third officer, a Benjamin Clough) went out in small boats to catch a recently sighted sperm whale, leaving the captain aboard the ship. Three kanakas took the opportunity to jump the captain, wielding “cutting spades,” and killed him.

Several men joined them in attempting to stage a mutiny, but Clough (through various means) retook the ship, and became second in command to the second mate (now captain), a man named Smith. What grabs me is that the annotations in this copy of the story were apparently made by Clough’s grandson (also a Benjamin Clough) in 1969! In fact, in a note (shown here), the grandson talks about looking at a book related to the case that was published by Paul C. Nicholson, the donor of our whaling collection, and later (last image) gives info on his family connection to the elder Clough, who went on to become a successful whaling captain. Great, great stuff. These micro-stories are only possible to recreate and cross-verify when you have the originals which bear this sort of physical evidence.

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