Field Notes


A fortune-teller gazes at a crystal ball; Randall McLeod gazes at books. The University of Toronto scholar doesn't read them, mind you: He simply stares at them, two at a time. And--oh, yes--the books are upside down.

Well, it's not your typical armchair approach, and as the picture below suggests, McLeod's method looks pretty strange, too. What's he doing? Thirteen years ago, the Renaissance literature professor invented the McLeod Portable Collator, a handmade contraption that allows devoted textual scholars like himself to compare different editions of the same book looking for discrepancies, large and small. Lovingly fashioned from wood, mirrors, and two amputated tripods ("bipods"), McLeod's thirty-pound creation almost mystically reveals the rich idiosyncrasies lurking beneath the surface of Renaissance books. His invention works so well, McLeod boasts, that he can collate two copies of a Shakespeare quarto in thirty minutes.

The Portable Collator looks complicated, but it's easy to operate. A user places two similar texts--say, two equivalent pages from different copies of Hamlet--on a two-tiered reading stand. After some tweaking of the collator's movable mirror, the viewer stares straight ahead, the left eye focused on one book, the right eye focused on the mirror. Presto! The two texts visually fuse into one. "The brain combines the images," McLeod explains, "even though you know you're observing two different objects."

Any discrepancy between the collated texts announces itself with hallucinatory energy--in the form of a shimmering, three-dimensional effect. As McLeod describes it, "It looks like you could almost scoop up the affected letters in your hand." This illusion, which McLeod terms a "tranceformation," resembles a less flashy version of those 3-D Magic Eye books that had everyone looking cross-eyed a few years ago. When the compared texts turn out to have numerous differences, the visual blend is akin to a relief map, with variances rising like mountain ranges. Placing the texts upside down, as McLeod recommends, helps protect users from being blinkered by content--which, as all proofreaders know, is the gremlin that allows so many errors to sneak into print.

But why devote such energy to catching a few four-hundred-year-old typos? The answer, says McLeod, has to do with the Renaissance's unusual editing habits. "Elizabethan bookmakers did not finish the proofing process before printing began," he explains. "Though it may seem stupid from our point of view, corrections were made by the printers as they went along, and the various pages were put together helter-skelter." The upshot: Most early volumes of a Shakespeare play (or Herbert sonnets) are unique, meaning there's no "original" text to speak of. Modern editors, of course, labor hard to screen away these differences, cobbling together what they deem the best passages into a seamless whole.

This mopping up is precisely what the professor uses his collator to fight against. For McLeod, who is something of a cult figure in the emergent field of "history of the book" scholarship, is hell-bent on digging up the differences that get washed away by the Riverside (and the Norton). "My enemies are editors--or anyone who stands between the modern consumer and the artist," he says. In 1988 McLeod received a Guggenheim fellowship to use his collator to compare over fifty copies of Sir John Harington's 1591 English translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, dispersed in libraries from Edinburgh to Los Angeles. But he's hardly about to compile a critical edition of his own. "I want to expose editing," he says. "In the case of Orlando, I want to show how special each copy is." As he puckishly announced in a recent essay, "My project is not just not to read the Orlando, but not to read it over and over again until I have a new way to read."

Shakespearean Peter Stallybrass, of the University of Pennsylvania, loves this contrarian spirit. He raves that "Randy is one of the only people I know who actually sees books." Fittingly, McLeod's idiosyncratic essays--to be collected next spring in a Cambridge volume, Material Shakespeare--are littered with intentional misspellings and multiple pseudonyms (Random Cloud, Random Clod) that pay tribute to the wild-and-woolly texts he loves.

McLeod's so proud of his homemade creation that he's started marketing it to other scholars, at $2,900 a pop. (Those laboratory-quality mirrors don't come cheap.) An honest salesman, he emphasizes that he didn't invent the first collator--the device was born in the Victorian era, though its inventor is unknown. The first modern book collator was fashioned by the Shakespearean scholar Charlton Hinman. But there were problems. "Hinman's invention was enormous and had flashing lights that made the machine get very warm," says McLeod. In other words, it cooked the books. Librarians remained wary.

McLeod's achievement is primarily one of refinement. First, he nixed the lightbulbs. Then he reduced the size: When dismantled, the collator qualifies as carry-on luggage, a key advance for McLeod's target market of globetrotting archive dwellers. Another improvement is that while older collators require objects to be perfectly flat--quite a trick with fragile old books--McLeod's collator, for reasons too complicated to explain to nonphysics majors, can easily handle curved shapes. Warholians take note: "I've collated Campbell's Soup cans," enthuses McLeod. "As long as the curved surfaces are congruent, you're ready to go."

McLeod's downsized collator has become a hit with both scholars and libraries. He made his first sale to a McGill University philosopher working on a (very) close reading of Hume. Since then, McLeod has been filling a steady stream of orders. The Cambridge University English department acquired one recently, as did the New York Public Library and the University of New South Wales. A graduate student at the University of Virginia used his shiny new collator to complete a dissertation on the variants in Ben Jonson's first folio.

Of course, McLeod knows that his wooden gizmo may one day be supplanted by electronic scanning devices. "There are computer-based approaches that do much the same thing," he concedes wistfully. "But they're gimmicky. The armadillos of invention will be around four thousand years from now." Just like those folios, one hopes. In any event, there's something wonderfully tactile about McLeod's machine--all those knobs and mirrors--that seems ideal for scholars who relish the book as object, from binding to flyleaf. "I love the process of collating," he says. "My machine doesn't just analyze and spit out results. All it says is, 'Here is strangeness.' I'm the one who gets to look."

by Daniel Zalewski


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