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The end of the year is heaving into view with its ineluctable retrospective urge. Trying to put together some semblance of a list of things that I liked this year, I came back to two books from the past year that I never got around to writing about: Francis Alÿs’s Fabiola: an Investigation and Bill Drummond’s 17.

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alysfabiola.jpgI first encountered Fabiola in the guise of an exhibition at the Hispanic Society earlier in the year. (It’s presently at LACMA. It’s a simple idea, of course: the Belgian/Mexican artist Francis Alÿs decided that he want to have an art collection, preferably one that could be acquired cheaply. At flea markets in Europe, he kept finding amateur paintings of the same theme, the little-known St. Fabiola. Fabiola is depicted in profile, looking left; she wears a red hood, pursed lips, and a solemn expression. It’s an image that was once well-known: all of these paintings were copying a painting by Jean-Jacques Henner which once hung in the Louvre, but which is now thought to be lost. Reproductions of it, however, were once widespread, and it was evidently a popular subject for amateur painters. Fabiola is not an imposing subject: a face in profile is easier than a face seen directly or at an angle, and her drapery comfortably accommodates flaws. Alÿs set himself to the task of collecting amateur paintings of Fabiola; he now has well over 300 which were displayed en masse at the Hispanic Society.
Looking at all the paintings together, as can be done with the exhibit or the book, is weirdly fascinating: while all of the paintings are alike (a fold in the drapery of her hood always appears; there’s almost always a tiny peak at her collar bone), variations present themselves. Some canvases have holes in them; fading paint gives her a decidedly green countenance. Sometimes Fabiola has teeth. Occasionally she faces the wrong way or has a hood that’s the wrong color, but other traits securely identify her. There’s a dogged attempt at a Cubist Fabiola which doesn’t quite come off; some unknown artist did a very good job portraying her with lentils.
Turning to the catalogue, one learns that the collecting of Fabiolas is not quite as simple as one might imagine. This is partially because Alÿs set rigorous guidelines for himself and partially because the world is a complicated place full of complicated people:

Given these parameters, both printed reproductions and ‘fakes’ (those made specifically to pique this now-well-known artist’s interest) are rigorously excluded from the collection. In 1997 Francis Alÿs sent some sixty Fabiolas to be shown in the second biennial of Saaremaa, Estonia. When these works were shipped back to him, he discovered that almost thirty had been replaced with substitutes, crude versions made to simulate his originals, which had mysteriously disappeared. Wishing to conceal the fact that they had lost or otherwise appropriated his works, the Estonian organizers seemingly hoped to fool him into believing that the substitutes – the copies they commissioned of his copies – were actually works that he had collected. This subgroup of twenty-six examples, identified in the collection catalogue as A through Z, are notable for an acidulous orange-red in the palette and a cursory, loose handling. More recently, Alÿs discovered than an acquaintance with a certain technical proficiency had been making versions that he presented to Alÿs not as examples of his own devising but as chance discoveries made when visiting flea markets and junk stores. Alÿs immediately removed them from the collection. Among objets d’art, such as jewelry and dishes, he distinguishes those commercially manufactured from those that require the intervention of an individual hand, such as enameled objects.

(Lynne Cooke, “Francis Alÿs: instigator/investigator”, note 7, p. 63.) The catalogue scrupulously documents these fake Fabiolas: looking at their reproductions, one wonders if they feel quite as real as the collected Fabiolas. Certainly they seem to qualify: it’s the same image. Viewed together, they do seem ersatz: they’re too average, lacking the deviations made by the hand of the amateur.
The amateur quality of these paintings is what was most striking when viewing them at the Hispanic Society, a monumentally-scaled museum way uptown squatting in a neighborhood that looks as if it’s seen better days. The interior of the Hispanic Society is dark wood; small cabinets full of Spanish and Mexican folk art huddled beneath some of the paintings: it’s an old-style museum. Individually, the Fabiolas look shockingly out of place: these are, for the most part, bad paintings, the sort of paintings that the painters’ family members were selling at flea markets. They don’t belong in museums. Together they work: there’s an intelligence guiding them. What Alÿs is showing us isn’t, finally, these paintings of Fabiola, though each is presented with dignity, each scrupulously catalogued in as much as paintings bought at flea markets can be catalogued. Alÿs’s work is about how we look at images today. From a different essay in the catalogue:

We have become inured to hearing the echoes of a theory popularized by Walter Benjamin, in respect of which the work of art loses its “aura” in an age of “mechanical” (or, more precisely, “technical”) reproduction. It is worth remembering that Benjamin himself was thinking primarily of media, such as photography and film, where no ‘original’ exists, for hardly would amateur artists have crossed Benjamin’s mind. In the case of Fabiola, we have a prime example of a lost original, complemented by a vast array of heterogeneous reproductions. Instead of lamenting the loss of aura, we can use this particular example to emphasize the essential productivity of the process of reproduction. These multifarious Fabiolas may not, in the last resort, be recuperated by art history, but in testifying to the resilience of a historically grounded image they also enhance our awareness of the dynamics of contemporary visual culture.

(Stephen Bann, “Beyond Fabiola: Henner in and out of his nineteenth-century context,” p. 40.) Alÿs’s exhibition suggests that that we need to re-examine how we view image making. Dialogue from Tom McCarthy’s recent novel Men in Space, where a subplot concerns forging Russian icons in the Czech Republic, presents a view of originality that might be akin to that which Alÿs is presenting:

“You know, strictly speaking, your copy won’t be a copy.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” she shifts her weight as she turns to face him, “copying has always been part of the culture of the icon. These zographs travelled . . .”

“Zoo graphs?”

“Zographs: icon painters. Vitan, Nedelko, Chevinodola, the Zaharievs, and hundred of minor ones whose names I can’t remember . . . . They travelled around carrying little more than their tools and the Hermeneia, and they . . .”

“Carrying the what? The Ermenia?”

“The Hermeneia, with an H: the zographs’ rule book. It supposedly originated on Mount Athos, in Greece. They’d travel around, redoing already existing subjects: literally copying older paintings. So you get the same images repeating down centuries, mutating slightly with each iteration.”

“So Anton’s one’s a copy too?”

“Well, yes – but beyond that, for zographs, copies aren’t secondary pieces. They’re iterations of the same sacred event. Each time you iterate you partake of the event: belong to it, as much as the last iterator did. But . . .”

(p. 111.) This idea of valuing a copy not just because of how accurately it mirrors the original but rather as an instance of iteration might be worth giving close attention in the digital era.

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billdrummond17.gifThere are parallels, of a sort, in Bill Drummond’s 17, a rambling collection of essays chronologically arranged where Drummond attempts to sort out his relationship with the way music works now. Drummond is most famous as half of the KLF, a conceptual art project masquerading as a pop act (or maybe the other way round). He’s spent a good portion of his 55 years enmeshed in the world of popular music. Biography through music is nothing new, but the angle Drummond takes is distinctly different: he’s interested in his relationship not so much with music but with recorded music, starting with buying his first single, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1967 and moving to the world of 2008, where almost everything ever recorded is instantly accessible via the Internet.
One thinks here of the line from Camus that pops up as a liner note for Scott Walker’s Scott 4, the point at which another career in pop music jumped the tracks: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” Drummond’s book is partially a meditation on aging: time dilutes everything, and one one’s first love can’t possibly be equalled by one’s fifty-first love. It’s the logic of drug addiction: repeated exposure to anything weakens the force of each individual exposure. You could call it, if you wanted, anhedonia. At a certain point one grows conscious of this weakening, and people respond in either of two ways. Most common is by complaining that things aren’t what they used to be. (Dissecting this response in the post-punk world is something of a specialty for the preternatually wizened Mark E. Smith of The Fall, perhaps the crankiest man in rock music & sometime confederate of Drummond; see, for example, “Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room”: “Not as good as it was at 2:30 / this afternoon / nostalgia / spangles / late to mid 30s”.) Or this can be inverted, as when Falstaff complains that the problem with latest emissaries from The Man is that “they hate us youth!” in Henry IV, Part 1.
Drummond isn’t satisfied with either path, though he’s more Falstaff than bitter old man. He finds the same things to like in today’s pop music that he loved in his youth. But the changes that have happened to media have had an enormous impact. So he carefully picks a quarrel with the idea of recorded music:

Trying to explain why I think recorded music is in the process of becoming as dated as mosaic or pottery is pretty difficult when for most of us recorded music is the form of artistic communication that has had the most emotional impact on our lives.

(p. 143) Drummond’s response starts in a tried and true fashion: by writing manifestos, which were then printed up as posters (in classic Modernist style: red and black, Trade Gothic type) by his Penkiln Burn operation. Most of these are scores for creating new music; they can be read online here; there are audio recordings of the author reading many of them. There’s a similarity – which Drummond freely admits – in what he does with the work of the generation of Fluxus composers who studied with John Cage in the late 1950s. Artists like Yoko Ono and the recently deceased George Brecht wrote what they called “event scores,” musical composition stripped back to basics, a few lines of text that suggest a performance. These artists were rebelling against the tradition of performed music; fifty years later, Drummond is rebelling against the tradition of recorded music which has supplanted performed music, destroying the performance traditionally more thoroughly than Cage could manage.
But Drummond swerves off the Fluxus path with a pointedly arbitrariness. Most of his scores are centered around the idea of a choir of 17 people, giving the project as a whole its name of The17. (Various reasons are given for this, none especially convincing, but one suspects that the number was largely chosen to evoke the connection of adolescence with pop music.) Many of his scores run something like this:

Choose a building with five floors.

On the ground floor gather 17 people aged 70 and over. Ask them to make non-verbal sounds with their mouths on the note of F sharp for five minutes. Record The 17. Ensure their performance draws upon their wisdom.

On the first floor gather 17 people aged between 45 and 69. Ask them to make non-verbal sounds with their mouths on the note of G sharp for five minutes. Record The 17. Ensure their performance draws upon their bitterness.

On the second floor gather 17 people aged between 21 and 44. Ask them to make non-verbal sounds with their mouths on the note of A sharp for five minutes. Record The 17. Ensure their performance draws upon their arrogance.

On the third floor gather 17 people aged between 13 and 20. Ask them to make non-verbal sounds with their mouths on the note of C sharp for five minutes. Record The 17. Ensure their performance draws upon their boredom.

On the fourth floor gather 17 people aged 12 and under. Ask them to make non-verbal sounds with their mouths on the note of D sharp for five minutes. Record The 17. Ensure their performance draws upon their innocence.

Combine and balance all of the recordings so they can be played simultaneously.

Gather the above 85 members of The17 in one place. Play them back the combined and balanced recordings simultaneously.

Delete all recordings.

(Score 4, “Age”.) The key instruction here is the final one: “delete all recordings,” which appears in most of the scores that Drummond comes up with: his performances are, with a few conscious exceptions, site specific. The book catalogues his travails attempting to get his pieces performed, almost always with people who are not musicians, in a variety of locales. Sometimes his scores work, and both Drummond and his impromptu choir think the music they’ve made is the best thing they’ve ever heard; sometimes it doesn’t work, and Drummond duly records his failures. Certainly there’s an element of stunt in what Drummond is doing (as there always has been). But there is something serious in Drummond’s project: he’s attempting to get to the root of music-making, to think about how we respond to sound, both as we age and as media changes and becomes omnipresent. “Strange how potent cheap music can be,” goes the Noel Coward line; but it’s a potency that needs to be investigated and interrogated from time to time lest we forget about it.

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Is there a connection in these two books? They fit together, I think, as common responses to a world supersaturated with images, with music. If there’s a problem to be grappled with in the media world we live in, it’s one of volume: there’s too much content to sort through. This becomes, I’ve noticed, more acute for me at the end of the year: there’s the urge to make sense of the impossible mass of the year that’s just gone by. It’s important to remember that there are other ways of seeing, other ways of hearing.

looking at libraries

A few weeks back though the auspices of TED, I paid a visit to a private library. The owner doesn’t want publicity, and I won’t reveal details, but it was a staggeringly beautiful (if idiosyncratic) collection, and I can’t imagine that there are many collections in private hands that rival it in value in the United States. Just about every lavish book imaginable was present: an elephant folio of Audobon along with a full set of John Gould‘s more sumptuous prints of birds; a Kelmscott Chaucer; a page from a Gutenberg Bible; a first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary; countless antique atlases of anatomy and cosmography; the Arion Press edition of Ulysses illustrated by Robert Motherwell; hand-illuminated Books of Hours. There were exquisite jeweled bindings, books woven entirely from silk, and doubtless many more things that couldn’t be seen in a three-hour tour. The collector mentioned in passing that he was thinking of buying a Wyclif Bible for around $600,000 because he didn’t have one yet.

Being no stranger to libraries, I’d seen many of these books before. Generally they’re the sort of books you see in the context of a museum or library, occasionally for sale in a gallery. They’re the sort of books that are generally found safely behind glass, books that one wears white gloves to touch. This was not such a collection: it’s not open to the public at all, only to the collector’s friends. A librarian would also be astonished that this collection of 30,000 books has no catalogue – the owner shelves all the books himself (by height, for which there’s historical precedent) and claims that he remembers where he put things. But what was most striking to me about my visit was how freely the books were handled by the owner, and how freely he allowed his guests to handle his books – not in a cavalier way, but in the way one touches a book one owns. The librarian in me suppressed a gasp when the owner explained how in the summer he opens the bay windows of the library and lets the breeze in. I’m sure that’s not how the Morgan Library works.

The collector can afford to let his visitors touch his books. In a way, the books in his collection are functioning as they are intended to function: as objects to be read and appreciated. They’re also functioning as signifiers of luxury. His collection is a repository of wealth in a way less metaphorical than we usually talk about library as repositories. No library, private or public, exists entirely outside of this economic system; it’s an integral part of the way we consider books.

Walking north on Laguardia Place last week, I was struck by how monolithic NYU’s Bobst Library appears from the south: it’s a hulking red-brick edifice that admits no entrance:

the outside and inside of bobst library at nyu

From inside it’s all windows and light, open stacks to be browsed. But: there’s the matter of getting inside, as admission is reserved to those with an NYU ID card. Those without cards are excluded. This is a necessary condition for the library to function: long ago on this blog I bemoaned the condition of the Brooklyn Library, where it’s almost impossible to find any book you’re looking for, though there’s still the pleasure of browsing. The quality of a collection seems to be inversely related to the number of people kept out. Keeping the books in and the world out is demonstrated elegantly by the thin marble windows of Yale’s Beinecke library which admit a small amount of light but not the viewer’s gaze:

outside and inside the beinecke

What’s inside and outside – who’s inside and outside – are completely separated. The poet Susan Howe inspects this separation in her book The Midnight, a volume which takes as one of its primary subjects interleaves, the sheets of tissue paper that publishers once put next to plates in books “in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together.” Howe’s work tends to be archivally based: she looks at how manuscripts are read or misread, and consequently has spent a lot of time in libraries. In this prose passage from the book, part of a section entitled “Scare Quotes II”, she looks at the way one enters Houghton, Harvard’s analogue to the Beinecke:

1991. Entering Houghton Library: Harvard Yard, 9:00 a.m., a fine June summer morning. At the entrance to the red-brick building designed by Robert C. Dean of Perry, Shaw and Hepburn in 1940, two single wooden doors with hinges, concealing two modernist plate glass doors without frames, have been swung into recesses to the left and right so as to be barely visible during open hours. The only metal fitting in each glass consists of a polished horizontal bar at waist height a visitor must pull to open. I enter an oval vestibule, about 10 feet wide and 5–6 feet deep, before me double doors again; again plate glass.

Passing through this first vestibule I find myself in an oval reception antechamber about 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep under what appears to be a ceiling with a dome at its apex. I think I see sunlight but closer inspection reveals electric light concealed under a slightly dropped form, also oval, illuminating the ceiling above. This first false skylight resembles a human eye and the central oval disc its ‘pupil.’ Maybe ghosts exist as spatiotemporal coordinates, even if they themselves do not occupy space, even if you’ve never seen one, so what? If the design of the antechamber can be read in terms of power and regimes of library control, and if ghosts ‘presently’ ‘occupy’ papers, you need to understand the present tense of ‘occupy.’

To enter this neo-Georgian building (a few Modernist touches added) with its state of the art technology for air filtration, security and controlled temperature and humidity for the preservation of materials, is to turn away from contemporary city life with all its follies and parasites in search of a second coming for dry bones. When the soul of a scholar has an inward bent and bias for an author in the Kingdom of Houghton, it is never at rest, until here. Perversely, nothing in Houghton awakens security sooner than curiosity.

Here – every researcher can be a perpetrator.

( pp. 120–121) While Houghton isn’t as architecturally ostentatious as the Beinecke, Howe’s scrutiny of the architecture of its entrance reveals it to be just as concerned with control. There’s a pessimistic view of human behavior embedded in library construction and the watchfulness of the sentries who guard them: if we, the public, could get at the books, we would most certainly destroy them.

There was the expectation that the barriers would be torn down with the coming of electronic libraries, that once the book’s spirit left its object, it would likewise escape its economic shackles. Certainly it makes sense: an electronic text isn’t degraded by copying in the same way that every reading is an infinitesimal destruction of a physical book. It’s unclear, however, that the media universe that’s unfolding is following this pattern: while sites like archive.org present a new model, projects like Google Books simply reconfigure the gates.

textual montage: the documentary biography

There’s something about the work of Herman Melville that brings out the unexpected in his readers. Example can be drawn almost at random. Call Me Ishmael, the poet Charles Olson’s lyrical little book on Moby-Dick, is as much a meditation on patrimony, artistic and otherwise, as it is about Melville. When the U. S. government locked him up at Ellis Island, the Trinidadian socialist C. L. R. James took the opportunity to move into literary criticism, writing Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, in which he found Melville a sympathetic audience for his argument against state capitalism. Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are, created semi-pornographic illustrations for an edition of Pierre, Melville’s little-known novel about incest and doubt. Claire Denis turned the comparatively staid Billy Budd into Beau Travail, a sun-dazed film about the French Foreign Legion that culminates in one of the most desparate dance numbers ever. Paul Metcalf, Melville’s great-grandson, smashed together Columbus, teratology, the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping & murder of 1953, and his family’s misgivings about their ancestor to form Genoa, a collage novel.

I set off to write about Metcalf and his unclassifiable books – most of them textual collages made of appropriated writing. Metcalf’s writing is perhaps worth paying attention to in light of electronic media, thoughhere’s precious little about him on the Internet (an interview, an obituary). Thinking about Metcalf’s work, however, I found myself sidetracked: when asked about the inspirations for his textual collages, he pointed to another work on Melville, Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log. I’ll return to Metcalf some other time; he’s not going anywhere.
The Melville Log, though. This is a book that might be just as weird as anything else that Melville ever inspired. It’s also instructive for thinking about how composition in the age of the ubiquitous archive could work. First, a bit of backstory: though Melville was prominent early in his career, he’d faded entirely from the American consciousness by 1920, when Billy Budd was discovered and Moby-Dick was discovered to be the Great American Novel of the nineteenth century. Literary scholars went to work scrutinizing Melville’s life and work; Jay Leyda arrived on the scene in the 1940s, having missed the main boom, but being a big part of a post-war boomlet. In 1951, after years of work, he published The Melville Log, a compilation of first-hand sources about Melville’s life and work. In the half-century since, it’s become a foundational text for anyone seeking to learn about Melville’s life.
I knew that much – just about anyone who’s read Melville has heard of The Melville Log – but I’d never bothered to actually look at a copy of Leyda’s book. From that description, it doesn’t sound interesting. But I found a cheap used copy on Amazon & ordered it; a week later, it turned up on my door. From the dedication, it became clear that this wasn’t the book I’d assumed it was:

This book was begun as a birthday present
for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein.

the young jay leydaJay Leyda, it turns out, wasn’t just a literary historian; in fact, he’s best known as a film historian, a field in which he played a foundational role. He had, it seems clear, an interesting life. Considering an career as a filmmaker, Leyda went to Moscow in the 1930s to study film with Eisenstein, the only American to do so; he seems to have worked on Bezhin Meadow as a stills photographer. Returning to the U.S., he served as an advisor to Mission to Moscow, a propaganda film designed to shore up American support for the Soviet Union during WWII (a film later to be soundly denounced as evidence of Hollywood’s un-Americanism). From there he went on to write his Melville book; he also wrote biographies of Emily Dickinson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as a substantial amount of film criticism on Soviet and Chinese films.
What’s the importance of this to his book on Melville? If Leyda learned anything from Eisenstein, it was the value of montage, putting adjacent shots into juxtaposition to create new meaning. Leyda explained what he was doing in his introduction:

The result is a book made of documents, documents of many kinds and from many sources, written by many men and women (and some children); but documents cannot be accepted unconditionally. A ‘document’ should be distrusted as much as a photograph, for documents are a fallible as their human authors. Letters contained as many falsehoods and misunderstandings in 1851 as they do in 1951, and journalists and critics (and typesetters) of a century ago operated under much the same pressures that they do today. Each document quoted here requires some judgment of its author’s motives and character – although perhaps the First Mates who kept the whaling logs may be thought beyond suspicion.

(p. xii.) A few scanned spreads from the book give a feeling for its contents, how it juxtaposes bits and pieces of letters, business documents, journals, and Melville’s work, using time – the march of years from Melville’s birth to his death – as its central axis. Essentially, it’s Eisenstein’s montage, moved from the world of film into that of books, with not a little of what would subsequently be called multimedia. Click to enlarge:
spread: pages 110-111 of the melville log by jay leyda
spread: pages 314-315 of the melville log by jay leyda
spread: pages 482-483 of the melville log by jay leyda
For a book that might be thought of as a biography, there seems to be very little of the biographer: only the unobtrusive introduction to each entry is in Leyda’s hand. (Tucked away at the back of the book, of course, is an enormous list of the sources of quotation.) But lack of the author’s words doesn’t signify the author’s lack of intention. Here’s Eisenstein explaining montage in Film Form, translated by Leyda: “By combining these monstrous incongruities we newly collect the disintegrated event into one whole, but in our aspect.” Leyda, in his own introduction, winks at this: clearly, he’s one of “the First Mates who kept the whaling logs” who would wish to be thought beyond suspicion.
There’s a very interesting reading of Leyda’s collage-work – and the way collage works – in Clare L. Spark‘s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, a thorough dissection of the forces that made Melville into the Melville we think we understand. Melville’s life is a challenge for the prospective biographer: there’s not the usual plot arc or easy moral to be drawn from it, though that hasn’t stopped people from trying to do so: a Great American Novelist needs to behave properly. According to Spark:

Leyda arranged his chronology of Melville’s hitherto confusing or mysterious life to track a progression from Ahab’s family-splitting bourgeois individualism to Billy Budd’s socially responsible sacrifice on behalf of family unity and order, ordering Melville in the process. Every detail of The Melville Log was designed to fortify that message.

(pp. 10–11.) Spark has harsher words for Leyda in her chapter on his work: she sees him as a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist and details the ways in which suppresses and misrepresents information in the guise of presenting the unvarnished truth. If you’re interested in Melville or twentieth-century American propaganda – from both the right and the left – hers is a fascinating book and well worth seeking out.

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But let’s return from the depths of Melville criticism. If, as Spark argues, The Melville Log presents a subjective view of Melville to his readers, it’s only able to do so because Leyda knew that only a miniscule fraction of those who read his book would be able or have the inclination to consult the original documents that he was quoting, the majority of which weren’t publicly accessible.
A thought experiment: what happens if, thanks to book-scanning projects, all those sources were publicly accessible?(The University of Connecticut’s Olson collection might be seen as a start.) Having everything available doesn’t obviate the need for projects like Leyda’s; we need editors to sort through the chaff and to point out the things that are interesting. A born-digital project like this could be instantly accountable in a way that it would be difficult for a print version to be: a link could take the reader from the quotation to the quoted document. Going further: a reader who’s dissatisfied with the slant of a digital Melville Log could assemble their own alternate version.
Technically, this isn’t difficult. But the tools to do this don’t seem to exist yet; and supporting this sort of ecosystem of research doesn’t seem to be an immediate priority for those compiling archives.