Why LaTeX and Literary Studies? An Introduction


Why blog about the LaTeX typesetting system and literary studies?

I have been using TeX for twelve years. Probably there aren’t too many people in literary studies who could say the same. I gave Word the definitive boot about six years ago and since then have produced all my written documents in LaTeX. This is a blog for humanists who are doing the same, or are thinking they might like to try.

Why might you try? I have already written one manifesto, but here’s the abbreviated version. Word has an unconscionable tyranny in literary studies and in the humanities more generally. You would think that highly verbally attentive people who write and produce elaborate documents (articles, books) for a living would have long ago risen up in protest at the many frustrations of Word: its instability, its family of mutually incompatible file formats, the sheer ugliness of the documents it produces. Try writing twenty pages with thirty footnotes in Word and look at the huge stripes of white space at the bottom of every page—if Word doesn’t crash first. Then try manipulating an extensive bibliography in Word, even with the help of Zotero. Not fun.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Switching to LaTeX involves, for a humanist, a big shift in how you go about producing documents, and even in how you think about producing documents, but the rewards are many. LaTeX doesn’t simply help you typeset pages more beautifully, though it really does that. It asks you to separate the content and the conceptual structure of your work on the one hand from the printed (or, more than ever, onscreen) page on the other. TeX’s job is to help you generate an aesthetically pleasing representation of your content from a more bare-bones representation. Work in plain text, writing markup code (yes, code—but simple code), using the immense library of tools that computer scientists and programmers and text-processing wizards have developed for themselves over the last half-century. Then produce a PDF file, and printed pages, which automatically use all the typographical bells and whistles that used to be the exclusive province of professional designers and publishers with offset presses.

Why now? I have recently finished revising a book manuscript using LaTeX, and it’s become clear to me that TeX has over the last few years taken a huge leap forward in its usefulness to humanists. It’s now possible to use Unicode text to handle multiple languages easily in a single document (and to typeset those languages responsibly, with appropriate hyphenation). Using the XeTeX engine, you can use your system fonts, including “advanced” fonts with OpenType features (small caps, ligatures, old-style numerals—you have no idea how much difference these features make in producing a document that looks typeset rather than just printed out). And above all, the biblatex project has finally provided a bibliography-management package adequate to the complicated demands of humanists. I have used the semi-miraculous biblatex-chicago package, together with the very impressive BibDesk database manager, to automatically generate the hundreds of footnotes in my book from a database of sources—and LaTeX typesets my citations in full conformity with the Chicago Manual of Style. No other combination of text processor and bibliography manager even comes close to being able to do this.

So though TeX and LaTeX have been around for decades, they are only now finally coming into their own as tools for humanists. My posts here will chronicle my work with these tools—the discoveries I’ve made, the tricks I’ve learned, the frustrations I encounter. I hope, too, that it will be a place for other humanists using TeX or working on digital document forms to discuss their shared concerns and answer each other’s (and my) questions.