Introduction to Textual Variants
One of the more disheartening things when you’re looking through back issues of Time and Newsweek from the 1970-71 school year to find the story about the Pakistani soldiers who came into a Bangladeshi village searching for blood donors–they simply strapped the young men down and drained all their blood (it would make a great poem)–is to see how many pages have been razor bladed or torn out, even at (that trope of Mormon essay writing) a university with a strict honor code meant to remind students and faculty of what it means to be the Lord’s students.
Librarians, faced with such desecration, such danger to their collections, sometimes talk about closing the stacks, so that patrons have to fill out a request for the item like that American kid found out in 1970-71 at the University of Oulu, Finland library, whose father was teaching across the street in the English Department, which had just moved from over the sausage factory to over the cable factory.
The thought of closed stacks is at least disheartening to serious scholars, or dilletantes, or omnivorous readers, or people who enjoy browsing the stacks while looking up a book, like I was doing one night in the old section of the BYU library, probably sometime between 1981-3. That was back when the south half was new, having opened in 1976, and the north half was the old half, when Frank Nackos’s Tree of Wisdom stood across the sidewalk from the north entrance, where the glass pyramid is now–the new new section.
(The Tree of Wisdom was moved to the quad between the Kimball Tower, Eyring Science Center, new Joseph Smith Building, and McKay Building but I doubt any editorial letter writer knew about the letter back in 1975 complaining that some farmer had left an implement in front of the library, so no one wrote that the farmer had come back to move his or her implement.)
In my freshman year I had been on the moving crew and helped move books into the new half. The fifth floor was literature. The library was converting to the Library of Congress’s classification and all the new books were in the south half, but the book I was looking for was still one of Dewey’s decimals.
It was a pamphlet, actually, a lecture by Charlton Hinman, editor of the Norton Facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Hinman was explaining why a facsimile was necessary instead of just making a photographic reprint of the folio in best condition, and there are a lot to choose from. And that’s part of the problem, because printers in the Beard of Avon’s time would set a page then print a copy for the proofreader, who would read it and mark any changes, which the typesetters would promptly make. But they wouldn’t stop the presses while the proofer was doing his work, the time was too valuable. And paper was too valuable to throw away the uncorrected sheets, so every folio is unique, a mixture of corrected and uncorrected pages.
There are a lot of extant Shaxberd quartos and folios, more than one person could compare by looking back and forth between them, or two people with one reading and the other following along, or 300 years worth of scholars, so Hinman invented a machine to compare two folios at a time so he could collate the differences*.
The machine had two chambers, one for each folio, and a viewfinder, a mirror that could switch back and forth rapidly between the chambers. Since the contents were supposed to be identical, any blur in the mirror would indicate a difference. I picture the collator looking like two microfilm readers side by side, but probably larger.
Collation is a good way to find variants, but it won’t necessarily tell us which variant is correct, especially since we don’t have original manuscripts to check the variants against. Scholars and actors alike have to think about which variant is more likely in context. I played Romeo’s (Tim Slover) servant Balthasar in a production Orson Scott Card directed at The Castle amphitheater in Provo, around 1975, and we had a long discussion about what Juliet (Becky Nibley) says to the knife as she stabs herself in V:iii:170, “This is thy sheath; there rust and let me die,” or “there rest.”
The reading I have in two copies is rust, but I think we chose rest. We don’t speak of knives rusting in the sheath, and rust seemed a bit macabre.
My historian cousin Joe Soderborg tells me printing practices hadn’t changed much in the 200 years between Shaxberd and Joseph Smith, so each copy of The Book of Mormon’s first edition is likewise unique, which means not every copy of the first edition might be blessed with my favorite typo, page 414:1 (see Hel. 3:23), though it does appear in Wilford Wood’s 1962 Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol.1, which was reproduced from uncut sheets, so it may never have been corrected in the first edition.
*For more background on the Hinman collator see John Lienhard’s 3:33 radio script (with audio link) for Engines of Our Ingenuity, #1020. The script has a nice example at the end of the difficulty of comparing texts. One paragraph says “five differences,” one says “four,” but if you count differences in spacing there are at least six. You could use a word processor’s document compare feature to catch the textual differences, but not necessarily the differences in spacing, and the amount of space available in a line can affect typesetting and produce some interesting variants. We’ll look at two examples in part 2 of this introduction.