On Close Reading and Teamwork

Say the word ‘crowdsourcing’ and people automatically think of large-scale projects. Talk about ‘digital humanities’ and we think mining large sources of data. The online world is a vast and busy place. It’s not surprising that the media–and adherents of the ‘slow reading’ movement–regularly fret that the internet is destroying the way we think and read. (See this for just one example.)

Since December, Elaine Leong and I have been team researchers for the citizen science project, Shakespeare’s World, run by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Oxford English Dictionary.  The ‘Talk’ board is an active place, where volunteer transcribers come to ask questions or talk about the letters and recipes that they find. What has intrigued me most about the project is the way in which people engage with the material: deeply and in (dare I say it?) an early modern manner.


Pharmaceutical and Cookery Recipes, ca. 1675 (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.21), 261.

For just one example, let me introduce you to the tale of Bunchfussy, which begins with @parsfan’s comment:

‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’

That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst.

L0022575 G. Bartisch, Das ist Augendienst, 1583. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (starting with the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.

Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.

Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.

@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.

The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?

Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.

Apium Graveolens. Otto Wilhelm Thome, Flora von Deutschland (1885). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.

Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.

*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.

A shorter version of this post originally appeared at the collaborative blog shakespearesworldzoo–a blog that is well worth checking out, with more on recipes and early modern letters! Elaine and I also recently gave a talk on this case at a workshop on Citizen Science in Historical Perspective (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 19 February 2016).


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