Sunday, March 26, 2006

OOOOH! Epiphany!

I'm currently reading Moby Dick for my American Romanticism class. I only vaguely remember reading it in high school, and I know I got very little out of it. There was one particular section, though, that I was completely incapable of understanding. Not in the sense that I couldn't divine the essential meaning, but I had no clue what Melville was even saying. Here's the passage:
First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS(subdivisible into Chapters), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large. I. The FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE. As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise.
This passage is from Chapter 32, entitled "Cetology." In high school, I really had no idea what was going on here. I gathered that apparently Folio whales were big and Duodecimo whales were small. But I had never heard these terms in biology class, so I was pretty much . . . at sea . . . over the whole distinction. When I read this passage today, I got it!

You see, in my Bibliography and Research Methods class, we had a unit on the manufacture of early printed codex books (books that have a spine and open showing two pages of text at a time are called codex, as opposed to, say, scrolls like they used before). Folio, octavo, and duodecimo are terms to describe how certain books are made. For a folio, the leaves of the book are formed by folding a sheet of paper once, in half, trimming the raw edges, binding, etc. For an octavo volume, the page is folded into eighths (three folds), cut, trimmed, and bound (not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily before being sold). For duodecimo, you fold the page in twelfths. (I think that's three folds, either into thirds then in half, or in half then thirds. It does matter, but not to me, or you either, most likely!)

In general, all sheets of paper being equal, the folio book will be much larger than the octavo and duodecimo. Of course, all sheets were not equal, so in theory, a duodecimo volume could be larger than a folio. This seems kind of a frivolous distinction to make, until you realize that you had to print both sides of a sheet before you folded it. This makes the process for creating each kind of volume pretty different. As if inventing movable type wasn't enough, those printers had to figure out how to lay out the type so that after folding, the pages were all right-side up and in order. And I can barely manage to do manual duplex printing on sheets of paper with no folds intended. Amazing.

I still have no idea what extra-special super-secret hidden meanings for life Moby Dick might hold. To me it's still an incredibly digressive story about a maniac out to kill the whale that maimed him. *Shrug* But at least now I can say that in reading it as a graduate student, I understand it a little better than I did in high school! So there! I guess this Master of Arts degree in English and American Literature will be worth something! :-P Just thought I'd pass the savings on to you.

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