I like Tim Parks. Mind you, I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ve always enjoyed his essays when I’ve come across them, usually in the NYRB. His latest blog post for them, however, makes me want to rap him across the knuckles. It’s an extended whine about how annoying it is to create scholarly references and how he wishes they wouldn’t make him do it any more. Hey, I know exactly how annoying it is; I do it routinely as part of my editing, fixing the references of authors who couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job (or who farmed it out to grad students or interns who, more understandably, couldn’t be bothered to do a decent job). But it’s got to be done unless you want to jettison the whole enterprise of verifiable scholarship and go back to the days of quotation from memory and “every schoolboy knows.” Here’s a paragraph where the absurdity of his idea (that he and other slackers should be spared the suffering) shows through plainly:
Of course it will be objected that Google is not always accurate and does not yet include everything. Who would disagree? Though my experience with literary texts is that Google Books, or again Project Gutenberg, or the online University of Adelaide Library are accurate in an overwhelming majority of cases. But if they are not, let’s insist they become more accurate and more comprehensive, particularly with all works that are now out of copyright.
You go right ahead and insist, Tim, and on the day when online metadata become thoroughly reliable, sometime in the thirty-fifth century, you have my permission to rely on them. Until then, suck it up and get those page numbers.
Update. Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org has a far more thorough rebuttal of Parks’s silly idea; go read it. A sample (the Parks allegation is in itals):
Texts are available on the internet. If someone wants to verify a quotation from The Great Gatsby, yes it is easier and for most purposes just as valid to search Project Gutenberg than it is to track down the specific edition and then find the quotation in it, but I challenge anyone to do that with a quotation from one of Bede’s homilies. (I’ve been spending weeks trying to locate the source of just such a quotation because the scholar who quoted it did not provide adequate bibliographic information.) Furthermore, secondary sources are often behind firewalls and not readily searchable. Even if a scholar has digital access to the journal article through her university library, without knowing the journal title, issue, and date, finding the article is time consuming if not impossible.