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Paradise Regained

There are (at least) two different electronic editions of Paradise Lost on Project Gutenberg. The first, produced by Judy Boss and released in October 1991, was Project Gutenberg EBook #20. If you do an internet search for “project gutenberg paradise lost,” this is probably the edition you’ll find.

The second, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, was released in February 1992. This is a curiously short interval, particularly considering that there’d only been 25 ebooks encoded and released by Project Gutenberg in the 20+ years it had existed, and there are (when you stop to count them) many more books in the English language that were available. Even Milton fanatics would probably agree that this was a little early in a mass digitization project to start doubling up.

It turns out, though, that EBook #26 is special. In fact, it merits a special unsigned introduction by Project Gutenberg. By contrast, Boss’s 1991 edition doesn’t have an introduction. Instead, it has a totally charming disclaimer:


All persons concerned disclaim any and all reponsbility
that this etext is perfectly accurate. No pretenses in
any manner are made that this text should be thought of
as an authoritative edition in any respect.

This book was TYPED in by Judy Boss on Internet
eng003@unoma1 on Bitnet
(Judy now has a scanner)

Perfect, right? No authority, just a little signature of the scribe. “Judy made this.” Now she has a scanner.

Ebook #26 needs more context. Here’s the introduction:

This is the February 1992 Project Gutenberg release of:

Paradise Lost by John Milton

The oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg (ca. 1964-1965)
(If you know of any older ones, please let us know.)

Introduction (one page)

This etext was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr.
Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by
Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it
was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to
a specific location, and then it took months to convince people
to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do
the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to
something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After
that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you
will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and
so were all the other etexts of the 60’s and early 70’s. Don’t
let anyone fool you into thinking any etext with both upper and
lower case is an original; all those original Project Gutenberg
etexts were also in upper case and were translated or rewritten
many times to get them into their current condition. They have
been worked on by many people throughout the world.

In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext
we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a
variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a
little information here and there, but even after we received a
copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first
determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben
to verify this and get his permission. Interested enough, in a
totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor
subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened,
by accident, to notice his name. (We don’t really look at every
subscription request as the computers usually handle them.) The
etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the
current edition prepared.

To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).

This is the second version of Paradise Lost released by Project
Gutenberg. The first was released as our October, 1991 etext.

This is honest-to-goodness digital humanism, from start to finish. 113 baud keyboards. IBM punch cards. All caps and no punctuation — like a real Latin text! (In 1964, at least you had spaces between words and periods for the ends of sentences, I guess.) Tapping it out, in many hands, knowing that the number of people likely to even know what they’ve done is probably going to be limited to a handful.

Then in the early nineties, a new generation of digital humanists hears whispered rumors about this file and its editor. Then, after months of persuasion and conversion, “another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS.”

Meanwhile, the text itself has actually been recreated by a new editor/typist, working alone. But Project Gutenberg — probably Michael Hart himself — still recreates the text. To maintain that chain unbroken with the past.

When Michael Hart passed away in September, he was hailed as the “inventor of the ebook.” But Hart himself doubtlessly knew better.

He wasn’t the first to type a text into a computer. He didn’t even know who had been, if it was Joseph Raben and his typist(s) or someone else.

Hart didn’t invent the ebook. He invented something more: the place where these digital books and their editors’ names and stories could be preserved and shared. He invented a library; he invented an ark.


Tim Carmody says…

I thought it would be perfect if Project Gutenberg’s e-texts adhered to 80 character widths (like IBM cards). But they’re actually (as far as I can tell) 65 characters wide. At least this one seems to be; some appear to go as wide as 70.

So if you went one line for each card, Project Gutenberg e-texts would actually be reverse-compatible with IBM cards.

What a lovely tale, Tim, and so lovingly framed. It’s like the exertions of Aldus and his Greek assistants to find and correct the books of Herodotus. How did you come across this? And how many more little epics of early DH might there be?

Joseph Raben says…

When Michael Hart caught up with me at my hideout in metropolitan Queens and asked for a copy of Paradise Lost in what we then called “machine-readable format,” I wondered why it had taken years to locate me in the annual members’ directory of the MLA. That the story of my invisibility has survived him and seems destined to last for as many decades into the future as it has in the past does not burnish the reputation of the Gutenberg people’s skills as literary detectives. By 1991, I had been editing the basic journal in humanities computing, Computers and the Humanities, for over 20 years and had been organizing and attending international conferences during that entire period. Of course, I knew of Hart’s endeavors, but why he had not heard of mine puzzled me then and still does.

There are… let’s just say “many subcultures.”

Distributed Proofreaders doesn’t really overlap much with Project Gutenberg (as such), even though it was founded and still operates under the name of that older organization. The folks at didn’t like the way Distributed Proofreaders was going, so they spawned their own effort. Heck, I have two or three complete subcultures of heretical digitizers I want to launch myself.

A keyboard is, after all, much simpler to get than a broadsheet press…and how many variants and copies and counterfeits did those produce?

Cue that thing about “containing multitudes.”

These are fascinating stories, and for me, incredibly personally interesting — because this past winter and spring I decided to reread Paradise Lost. (Well, technically speaking I was *reading* most of it for the first time; I’d only ever finished the first two or three books back in college.) So I downloaded Paradise Lost from Project Gutenberg and read it over the next few months in bits and pieces, mostly late at night before bed (or during bouts of insomnia) and on the subway. It is, of course, insanely awesome.

Anyway, I stumbled across this post today, and wondered — which version of Paradise Lost do I have on my phone? So I checked and …

… it’s Judy’s.

Her comment about finally having a scanner is all the more poignant now that I know she (and you, Joseph) typed this thing in by hand. My hat is off.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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