Through Crinkles and Splotches: the Experience of Reading an Excellent Digital Surrogate

When we read “The Indian Wife” by Lydia Maria Child on the Google Books digital surrogate, it was still early in the semester and I had not fully grasped the implications of reading archival texts online versus in a physical form, let alone comparing different online formats of these writings.

In search of digital surrogates of our readings, I found a HathiTrust version of Nathaniel Parker Willis’ anthology titled The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners, which contains “The Indian Wife” story. I will describe my experience reading this incredible digital format and analyze what I was offered with this version that I was not able to get from Google Books. I will also consider how the experience was different than reading the text in a physical form.

Screenshot of “The Indian Wife” in HathiTrust,

In the preface of Willis’ anthology, he describes what his objectives are with compiling the vast body of works in one volume:

“it is intended as a vehicle for detached passages of history, romance, and vivid description of scenery and manners, materials for which exist so abundantly in our country.”

Screenshot of the Preface to The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis from HathiTrust,

Child’s story is a dramatic and descriptive tale of a “gentle” and “submissive” Sioux princess, Tahmiroo, who falls for and marries a manipulative French fur trader, Florimond de Rancé. The relationship quickly turns sour, and Florimond drives Tahmiroo to row herself and her son over a waterfall (sorry for the spoiler). While Willis makes a point to say that not all of the stories in this anthology follow his envisioned theme (see preface page above), I feel that Child’s story satisfies it in the best way possible. It provides Americans with the “historical” narrative of Native Americans (the one they want, at least) and supplements her readers with plenty of descriptions of scenery and customs. I digress—this post is not about the specifics of the story; it is about the experience of reading it on different platforms.

While the text between the two surrogates, Google Books and HathiTrust, is the same, it is truly amazing how much having a high-quality scan of the surrogate changes the way I feel when I read the story. The best way for me to describe the Google Books version is that it is washed out and bland, bleached of all life. There is no connection to the history behind this almost 200-year-old text. Scanning a text with not color, first edition or not, strips so much of the emotion and power that a digital surrogate can hold. When I found the HathiTrust format, a physical excitement came over me. How interesting! I now have access to the color and texture of the original book. The way that the tan pages are splotched with coffee colored stains speak to the book’s age. The textured crinkles and indentations present across the frail paper makes me wonder who else has flipped through its pages? What dusty shelves has it rested on? Even more fascinating is that the pages are so thin that the text on the back of each scanned page can be seen, like a lurking shadow. I am more attuned to this story as it was told in 1828.

Screenshot of “The Indian Wife” in HathiTrust,

As close as this comes to the printed book, there are components of the experience that are lacking. How heavy is the book? It has over 300 pages, so it must be a significant size and weight. What are its dimensions? How does it feel to turn each page? A format such as HathiTrust and even on Google Books makes the stories widely available and allows readers in the present day, like myself, to experience the text in the font and style it was originally published in. If this class, Scribbling Women, has taught me anything, it is that there is no true replacement for the print form of a text. Printed archival works can provide an understanding of the quality of the printing, the historical era it was printed in, and the care it was afforded by its owner long after the publishing date.

It is a bit hard to analyze print forms of texts in the world right now, so excellent digital surrogates like the one of “The Indian Wife” on HathiTrust can pass the time for now.

Child, Lydia Maria. “The Indian Wife,” in The Legendary, Consisting of Original Pieces, Principally Illustrative of American History, Scenery, and Manners edited by Nathaniel Parker Willis. Boston: S.G. Goodrich, 1828. Vol. 1. 197-207.

Digital Surrogates:

Google Books


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