Author Archives: Lucas Corcoran

Book Traces

Andrew Stauffer’s presentation got me thinking about all the interesting finds I’ve come across while exploring the stacks. While it’s true that we don’t have many historical editions in the Mina Rees Library here at the GC, I did my undergrad at City College, and thanks to what I thought of at time as institutional neglect, I came across many intriguing old books while browsing the stacks of Cohen Library.

Here are a few of fun ones that come to mind:

A physics book written in French from the mid-19th century, stamped “The New York Free Academy” (City College’s original name)

A Carnegie Hall ticket stub from the 1950s inside an edition of the Collected Essays of E.B. White.

Various flowers and leaves pressed within the book.

I’d agree that in age when the marks that we leave on texts are so public (so-and-so has left such-and-such comment) that there’s something enchanting about these anonymous material traces that appear to us as such poignant details of a life-once-lived.

But, along with Stauffer, I also wonder how many of these bits of evidence we’d need to create a useful set of data. On the other hand, it seems to me that it’s a worthy project to start thinking of the study of these artifacts as an acceptable field of scholarship. Certainly, the history of book preservation has thought otherwise, as book collectors of the past of lobbed off marginalia when rebinding, or simply threw out the books with excessive writing in them.

That being said, I would also like to think about how we can judge extant editions with marginalia, considering that so many of these editions have simply been lost to history.


What’s in a Name?

Last week’s discussion got me thinking about how we us words, and what we expect out of them when we use them to label things. For instance, the name digital humanities. Seems benign enough, right?

But the term seems ready to join the pile of other labels that, although at some point distinct, have become hopelessly ambiguous ( I am thinking of words like ‘jazz’ when attempting to define a style of music, ‘English’ when attempting to outline a discipline of study, ‘beauty’ as an ideal aesthetic category).

As far as I can survey the field, I am a digital humanist, if

I) I use text mining to figure out the frequency of a given word in 18th century British periodicals.

II) I map visually the location of tweets that pertain to a certain topic.

III) I study how video game platforms limit the type of games that are designed for them.

Some might indeed argue that the umbrella term of digital humanities, which is capable of encompassing the above examples, is needed for a nascent field; that a protean and mutable category allows for new scholarship to develop outside of calcified distinctions. To this point, I readily agree. On the other hand, I still assert that finer brush is needed when painting the purpose of digital humanities inclusion within literary studies. It might be cumbersome to say, “I’m an 18th century British literature scholar using text mining to discover the prevalence of a given word between 1756-59,” or “I use certain forms of social media to locate how a given event has affected different communities throughout the nation,” or “I examine how new forms of technology shape the experiences that we have through them,” and indeed it lacks some of the cachet that the designation of the digital humanities confers. But the descriptions are precise; they allow us to communicate quickly and clearly what our work is to our colleagues and to the public; and they cordon off the digital humanities (ah! I used it myself!) from being lumped in with MOOCS, and other plans that seek turn higher education into a digital, impersonal experience.

Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts

By: Lucas Corcoran

I spent each Friday last semester commuting to D.C. and back. I was fortunate enough to have taken part in the Folger Institute’s Introduction to Bibliography course, in which we covered everything from chain lines to the division of labor within early modern print shops. Perhaps, at the time, the fatigue from the bus ride tinged my view of bibliography, for the course began to feel at times more like library science than literary criticism or intellectual history. Indeed, many times during the discussion sessions for the Folger course, I wondered out loud what work analytical bibliography could do for literary study. Who cares where the watermark is in the 1623 folio? Why do I need to schlep to a rare books room when I can get a good facsimile on EEBO?

Now freed from the cramped seats of Megabus and the traffic on I95, I cleary see the importance of analytical bibliography for my research. I account for this shift by positing two main causes for it: i) My research interests have tacked away from early modern books written in English, and ii) I have come to appreciate the fact that a large number of early modern books are moldering in libraries, with no scholarly editions ever produced for them. Scholars such as Jonathan Hope have brought point (ii) to the fore. With continued use of text mining directing many new advances in literary study, we are beginning to reckon with data sets that include editions of texts far outside the cannon. Who were the people who wrote these books? Who printed them? One of the advantages of the macro-analysis that Hope advocates is that it directs our attention to hitherto uncharted territory of rare book collections.

All this was in my mind as I made my way up to the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I had already visited Columbia’s library, when I took Professor Carroll’s Introduction to Renaissance Studies course, last spring. Then, we had the pleasure of looking of editions of Erasmus, Jonson and, much to my delight, a 1623 folio. So, by now, I am well versed in the procedures of entering and exiting a rare books room. When I got to the desk, I dutifully divested myself of pens, removed my laptop from its sleeve, waited patiently for the librarian, and spoke with a hushed politeness.

I requested my book; I have learned from experience to moderate my appetite in the rare book room. In the past, it feels as if my eyes were bigger than my stomach: peeling off paper request slips in furies of excitement. The book that I asked for was 16th century Greek grammar textbook. I find the volume keenly interesting, for few Greek grammars were printed in London in the 16th century, and scholars have renewed their attention to the status of Greek reception in the English Renaissance. I, too, was excited to see how students tackled the often-befuddling intricacies of Greek, having just spent my summer suffering through an intensive course.

Every time that I am lucky enough to handle an early modern book, the book as artifact still astounds. It still astounds me that I am allowed to thumb through pages that are nearly half a millennia old. The shock of the historical object forces me to consider the reality of history: the Renaissance is not an abstract category, but existed in the same way that we exist—full of bodies, objects, relationships, failures and aspirations. The book itself, it seems, is due for a renaissance. In the era of big data, and with renewed emphasis on the materiality of history, the return to the archive appears to be the logical next step; simply getting the extant historical recorded digitized feels like the work of a generation.



State of the Field

By: Lucas Corcoran


Renaissance Quarterly. University of Chicago Press.

Early Modern Cultural Studies. University of Pennsylvania Press.

The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Duke University Press.

Shakespeare Quarterly. John Hopkins Press.


Green, Roland. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

In his book, Professor Greene seeks to trace the intellectual history of the long 16th century through the changing usages of five words: blood, invention, language, world, resistance. Herein, Professor green sets out a term ‘critical semantics’ in order to describe this method.

Palfrey, Simon. Poor Tom: Living King Lear. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Palfrey hopes to see King Lear anew. To do this, he examines Edgar’s portrayal of ‘Poor Tom of Bedlam.’

Turner, James. Philology: the Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014.

Professor Turner’s account of philology includes periods of history before and after what scholars usually define as the early modern era. His is a useful narrative, for it establishes the firm hold that philology had on early modern literary study and education.

Annual Conferences:

Renaissance Society of America

Shakespeare Association of America

Society for the Study of Early Modern Women

University Press Series:

The I Tatti Renaissance Library. Harvard UP.

Renaissance Dramatists. Edinburgh University Press.

Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Speaker Series:

Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance. The Graduate Center, CUNY.

University Seminar in Shakespeare. Columbia University.

Renaissance Studies. The Graduate Center, CUNY.


Medieval and Renaissance Studies Columbia:

The Folger:

The British Library: http:

Scholarly Tweets:

John Gallagher:

Mario Digangi:

Carrie Hintz:

Institutional Tweets:

The Folger Library:

The Newberry Library:

The Huntington Library: