Associate Professor, American University of Beirut

Beirut publishes… / وبيروت تطبع

Beirut publishes… / وبيروت تطبع : Digital Spatio-Temporal Narratives of the Lebanese Publishing Industry (1920-present)

David Joseph Wrisley
American University of Beirut
Abstract : Books in Motion Conference (Beirut, May 2016)

Initial project site: http://litmap.djwrisley.com/?page_id=2

As the old adage goes, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.” This paper grows out of a project-based research spatial humanities seminar in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut entitled “Literature and Mapping” (ENGL 292/306V, Spring 2016) that explores spatio-temporality of publishing culture in Beirut over the last century. Scholars familiar with the work of Moretti will recognize the come-back of the map to literary studies, particularly as an organizing technology for thinking about data-driven studies of literary production. This project takes some of its inspiration from a recent attempt to map publishing and book selling in Cairo, but with a key difference: we aim not only to localize contemporary commercial book culture, but also to add historical and sociological depth for the case of Beirut. We know publishing institutions did not stay in the same locations over the course of time (Mermier), and scholars have documented the rise of certain sectors and kinds of book publishing in and around the city (Rosiny).

Planned data sources for this project include archival materials held in special collections at Jafet Library, IFPO and the Bibliothèque Orientale, extracted records from electronic library catalogs (Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Bibliothèque nationale de France), interviews with local publishers and booksellers as well as from mobile application data collection. From the LOC I have already acquired (scraped) the publication information for about 10000 books published in Beirut over the century. Other sources will no doubt emerge as the research continues.

One of the traditional problems in history and sociology is capturing simultaneously the spatial and the temporal complexity of a research problem, especially within traditional academic prose narrative. Digital mapping techniques provide an invaluable frame for spatio-temporal depth, but not without significant challenges. Inspired by theoreticians and practitioners in a branch of the digital humanities known as the spatial or GeoHumanities, we will create a set of interactive “thick” or “deep” maps that allow for a variety of factors in the data about Beirut publishing to be visualized. For example, we will explore the potential effects of war, gentrification and delocalization of urban cultural space on the sector. Whereas traditional methods of digital mapping rely upon spatial precision and computational analysis, the techniques need to be adjusted for the kind of data collection and representation we expect to carry out. Much of what we will acquire is rough and uncertain–in both space and time–with approximate dates of activity and only a building name or a post-office box for an address. We will discuss in particular how maps do not simply mirror the world, but tell multiple narratives about lived, built space. Maps are “unstable, fragile and temporary,” they are a “conversation and not a statement” (McLucas).

Unlike top-down models for mapping cities that promote state-centered views of culture or politics, bottom-up “neogeography” admits pluralism and democratic, even idiosyncractic or messy, access to the analytic space of the map (Warf). In one semester we will be able to collect considerable data, but humanities mapping never aims at a totality of the archive, but rather visualizes what we know as but one step in the process of discovering what we do not know (Bodenhamer). Mapping is never a “one-time thing” (Presner et al.). It is an iterative process. As such, the paper proposed for the Books in Motion conference, will be prose narrative delivered in a traditional panel time slot, but will be accompanied by map-based narrative that will illustrate some of the semester’s findings. Initial evidence points to a shift of printing and consumption of books away from the early 20th century souqs and reading clubs located in proximity to the various national embassies towards two cultural, language-divergent poles that developed in the 1920s around the “globalized” Catholic and American university presses, a familiar bifurcation as described by cultural historians (Kassir). Other initial findings point to mid-century and post-war clustering of publishers in new areas–Ain al-Tineh, Ghoberieh/Haret Hreik and Sin al-Fil. We would like to analyze these spatial migrations of the publishing sector in relation to the existence and development of other (confessionally-inflected) cultural institutions. The very basic map of aggregate data (as of yet temporally undistinguished) can be found at the project site.

Recognizing that the Lebanese book sector was deeply involved in not only publishing, but also distribution, printing and translation in and out of Arabic, French and English, the full story of connectivity of this sector is not to be found in Lebanon alone. As it is a new topic, and for the purposes of the initial investigation, the scale of the spatial narrative generated in the Spring semester will be the general metropolitan area of Beirut. This being said, ancillary data will no doubt be collected linking the publishing to other parts of the Arab world, Europe and North America. This data, if robust, may be used to analyze networks of publishers connected to Beirut, adding another dimension to the “mobility of books.”

Keywords: book publishing, book distribution, digital humanities, spatial humanities, spatio-temporal narratives, thick/deep mapping, sociology of literature

Initial project site: http://litmap.djwrisley.com/?page_id=2

Works Cited

Bodenhamer, D.J. “Narrating Space and Place,” Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (2015).

“Cairo Bookstop” http://cairobookstop.wordpress.com [accessed 1.12.15].

Kassir, S. Histoire de Beyrouth (2003).

McLucas, C. “Deep Mapping,” http://documents.stanford.edu/MichaelShanks/51 [accessed 1.12.15].

Mermier, F. Le Livre et la ville: Beyrouth et l’édition arabe (2005).

Moretti, F. Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1999).

Presner, T. et al, Hypercities: Thick Mapping and the Digital Humanities (2014).

Rosiny, S. Shia’s Publishing in Lebanon: with special reference to Islamic and Islamicist publications (1999).

Warf, B. “Deep Mapping and Neogeography,” Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (2015).

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