Building an Interactive Ruskin

John Ruskin, reaching for a ruler with which to strike your palms.

John Ruskin, reaching for a ruler with which to strike your palms.

Someday in the future, engineers may be able to create a fully interactive John Ruskin audioanimatronic that walks, talks, and thinks exactly like Ruskin. Then he can tell us what we don’t understand about art, how badly we behave as tourists, how to best study our Bibles, and inform us of the detrimental effects to our souls from “bi-,tri-, and 4-5-6 or 7  cycles, and every other contrivance and invention for superseding human feet on God’s ground” (Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin 617). Until that glorious day, I am doing my part to help readers, tourists, and scholars have a more immersive experience of reading Ruskin’s 1875 travel guide, Mornings in Florence.

Ruskin’s preface to Mornings in Florence reads, in part: “The following letters are written as I would write to any friends who asked me what they ought preferably to study in limited time; and I hope they may be found of use if read in the places which they describe, or before the pictures to which they refer.” Putting aside for a moment that Ruskin had many friends that indulged his cantankerous behaviors, there are few tourists today carrying Ruskin in their pockets, though I don’t doubt that tiny fragments and casual references still exist in popular “guidebook” apps available on smart-phones. Most of us who continue to read and enjoy Ruskin are not, sadly, “in the places which [he] describes.” Without knowing exactly which painting Ruskin is discussing or precisely which chapel to the left he would like us to turn towards, we tend to skim right over these passages. I hope that this Mornings in Florence project will allow readers to make connections between text and place.

As an advocate of the digital humanities, I find that I am constantly defending myself, my colleagues, and our research against accusations of abandoning traditional humanities (We’re not.) or destroying close-reading practices (Again, no.) because we use technology and phrases like “distant-reading.” These methodologies are not incompatible. While I do find value in big data and topic modeling, I am also someone who prefers holding a book in my hands. I enjoy the intimacy, the “carnal love,” Anne Fadiman calls it, of writing in margins and dog-earing corners.  But sometimes technology allows us not just a more convenient, less expensive option (i.e. Kindle and other tablets), but also a closer reading experience.

A little something extra

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to embed photos of the places Ruskin describes, but if I was going to present this as part of a larger digital companion to my dissertation, I felt that I needed to also make the project reflect some of the interactions that I examine in my own writing. At the most basic level, the first chapter of my dissertation is about travel guides, including Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers, which Ruskin was particularly interested in disparaging. The second chapter is about travelogues and memoirs, many of which counter Ruskin’s authority and opinions. My third chapter is about novels that deal with tourism or tourists, including E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, which also has quite a lot to say about Ruskin. So, rather than just embedding photos of sites mentioned by Ruskin, I have also embedded quotes from Murray and Forster. Intertextuality, even hypertextuality, to use Gérard Genette’s term, is at the heart of my dissertation, but it is also essential to understanding Ruskin’s production and reception.  By including these other texts, I think the project gives a more contextual representation both to my dissertation and to Ruskin’s text.

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